State Democrats landed the first punch in the series of Wisconsin recall elections after state Sen. Dave Hansen easily defended his seat against Republican challenger David VanderLeest in the 30th Senate District in Green Bay.
While state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate and others are hailing the victory as a sign of things to come in the next month's recall elections, not everyone is buying the hype.
In an election where Democratic voter turnout surpassed that of the heated , Hansen posted a resounding victory, defeating VanderLeest by a 2-to-1 margin.
Democrats notch the score to 1-0 over Republicans with eight recall elections remaining throughout the state.
Tate said Tuesday’s results are a sign that momentum in the state is shifting to the blue side.
"Overall our historic recall movement, mocked by right-wing pundits, is surging," Tate said Wednesday. "Last night was the first step turning Wisconsin back toward the values it has pursued before."
GOP says one race is not a trend
However, state Republicans aren’t convinced Hansen’s victory is cause to worry about the remaining six seats held by GOP incumbents.
"It should come as no surprise that a single Democrat senator was able to cling to his seat after drastically outspending his opponent," said Katie McCallum, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party. "Senator Hansen and his liberal special interests spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hang on to the 30th Senate District after he abandoned his constituents and fled to Illinois."
McCallum added the party is confident the GOP will keep its hold on the remaining seats.
"The Republican majority in our state Senate remains unchanged after Tuesday's results, and it will remain strong after the recall elections are completed next month," she said.
Some have contended that Hansen’s victory Tuesday — though resounding — was a bit watered down.
VanderLeest was facing personal and legal troubles, and was the Republican’s second choice to Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), who failed to submit the 400 signatures to run in the recall.
However, Tate said the victory was sent a message nonetheless.
“I don’t think we should dismiss a Democrat racking up such a huge win as a fluke, or something we shouldn’t look into,” he said. “We didn’t just beat VanderLeest — we crushed him. The people of Wisconsin are responding.”
Will momentum carry over to the 8th District?
Though Democrats may have reason to tout an early victory on Tuesday, only time will tell if they will repeat in the , where Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) will attempt to defend her seat against Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay).
A poll released by the Democratic party last week showed Darling and Pasch in a . Pasch has the slight edge with 47 percent of the vote to Darling’s 46 percent.
Democratic strategist John Kraus said the recent poll indicates support in Darling’s district may be waning, and the tide of momentum may very well wash ashore in the 8th District on Aug. 9.
“There’s no question that the Democratic base is highly energized and they have been for the whole year. Pasch has definitely made this a race, based on the latest poll,” Kraus said. “I think we are starting to see act that Republicans not only lack the type of energy the Democrats have, that they may in fact be on the wrong side of the issues.”
Kraus said Darling’s position as leader of the Joint Finance Committee has put her in the forefront as the “cheerleader” of Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda, and will eventually cost her.
Her support of deep cuts to school funding is causing her support to wane in a district that puts a high investment in public education, said Kraus, who was active in the campaigns of former Gov. Jim Doyle and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold.
Republican party leader says Darling is safe
If that blue “tide” of momentum sweeps into the 8th District, Milwaukee County Republican Party Vice Chairman Rick Baas is convinced Darling won’t be washed away.
Rather than building her foundation of support with her constituents on sand, Darling has built her foundation on a rock over the past two decades.
“The constituents voted her in to do what has taken place over the last six months, and they will want to stand behind her,” Baas said. “Alberta has done the hard work. Pasch is just trying to take advantage of an opportunity, and make hay while the sun shines.
"People in her district know what she has done, and will stand behind her.”
Baas added that a victory up north in Green Bay has little to do with what will happen in southeastern Wisconsin.
“Even if it was a Republican victory I don’t believe anyone should be screaming at the top of their lungs that it was a Republican slam dunk,” Baas said.
Expert says voters are energized
Whether the Democrats have truly unleashed a surge of momentum throughout the state is up for debate. What isn’t being questioned, one expert says, is the energy and engagement of voters in 2011.
“Voters remain very engaged by these recalls," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Some people had argued that it’s summer and people will go on vacation, and this recall stuff has dragged on for a long time. There’s pretty good evidence that engagement remains high."
He noted, for example, that the turnout in Wisconsin's Supreme Court election in April was about 35 percent. Turnout for the prior Supreme Court race was 20 percent.
The 15 point increase in 2011 equates to about 355,000 more voters across Wisconsin heading to the polls.
Although turnout for the election in the 30th Senate District was about 15 percent lower than the Supreme Court race, it was still markedly higher than previous elections.
Franklin said there was also evidence that Democratic voters showed up in higher numbers Tuesday. The Democratic vote total in that district was 15 percent higher than the total votes received by Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg in April.
“The fact that Hansen got 15 percent more votes than Kloppenburg suggests Democrats were able to raise their vote totals even more in the general election,” Franklin said.
Tate affirmed Franklin’s findings and said he expects turnout by voters on both sides will be very high come August.
“We are going to see turnouts equal or exceed the turnout we saw in the spring election,” Tate said. “Turnout could even rival gubernatorial levels. Having elections in the middle of summer has not affected the races.”
In the 8th Senate District, Franklin said Darling has a slight advantage over Pasch based on the Supreme Court results. Republican David Prosser won all three Assembly Districts within the 8th District in April. He added that voter turnout will be crucial to the any hopes Pasch has of winning against Darling.
“In the Supreme Court race, there was no evidence that the district had shifted away from Darling,” Franklin said. “There is some advantage to the Republicans just by the nature of this district. Therefore, the Democratic turnout looks to be incredibly important here.”