07.13.11

Wisconsin’s Recall Madness Begins

Nearly a third of Wisconsin’s state senators are facing recall elections with opponents funded by heavily armed national activist groups. John Avlon on how the resort to constant recalls undermines democracy—and why Wisconsin is only the opening act in a post–"Citizens United" world.

The first elections of 2012 started yesterday as the Wisconsin recalls got underway.

Tip O’Neil’s time-honored admonition that “all politics is local” has been turned on its head. Out-of-state activist groups now flood local elections with cash in an attempt to frame a national narrative. Welcome to the post-Citizens United world.

Yesterday’s Wisconsin elections were just preamble—Democratic primaries to determine which candidates would be sent to square off against a handful of Republican state senators. August is the main event, the general-election cheese-state rumble.

Both teams, Democrats and Republicans, have found reason to indulge in this unwise step into perpetual elections. Democrats need only three more seats to gain control of the state Senate and stop Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda.

Republicans now think that two can play that game and have targeted a few vulnerable Democrat state senators for dereliction of duty—in this case, fleeing the state for two weeks while trying to block a vote on the budget and public-sector-union reform.

The fact that recall elections are now a reflexive recourse says more about how our national politics have changed than how Wisconsin has changed.

Conservative and liberal activist groups all see Wisconsin as a winnable fight that can frame future elections, determining who has momentum going into 2012.

In total, nine state Senate seats are being contested in Wisconsin’s recall election—six Republicans and three Democrats—out of 33 total.

Adding to the drama is the fact that “dirty tricks” were alleged in this round, courtesy of Republicans running in the Democratic primaries. It was a legal but ethically dodgy exploitation of Wisconsin’s open-primary laws, which not only allow all voters to participate in partisan primaries, but allow any voter to run in the partisan primaries. While no doubt weaselly, the plot ended up failing completely. All six of the candidates backed by the Democratic Party won their primary easily on Tuesday night, as expected.

But make no mistake: this is a still-unfolding national race. Flash back to this past winter, when the Wisconsin state capital was inundated by protesters wielding union placards and clustered in drum circles, while conservative groups marshaled their forces by sending funds trying to shore up their support with counterprotests.

Now, national activist groups are flooding these obscure off-cycle elections with special-interest cash to push their ideological agenda. Local representation is almost an afterthought. The worst is still ahead.

Democracy for America, a Vermont progressive organization, has announced that it will pour in an unprecedented $1.5 million into these recall races, which normally have cumulative budgets of a few hundred thousand dollars. For unions like the AFL-CIO, this is far from their first rodeo. According to the MacIver Institute, the AFL-CIO has sent more than $3.8 million to the “We Are Wisconsin” super PAC since May, including more than $750,000 since the start of July. In the last two months, the public-sector-union collective AFSCME has sent more than $1.8 million in the last two months, including $800,000 on July 7 alone.

On the other side of the aisle, the six registered Republican candidates running in Tuesday’s primary raised more than $2 million in direct donations, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. But—and this is a big “but”—independent expenditures such as for television ads had not yet been calculated, and the biggest expenditures were unlikely to be registered before the August recalls. The total cash tributaries will no doubt get more murky and torrential.

Add to this anticipation the fact that as much as 90 percent of the money raised for these local campaigns will come from out of state. Taken together, you’ve got something rotten in Racine.

Keep in mind there is no great Wisconsin tradition of the recall. The most recent echo was a successful effort to yank a state senator who reversed his pledge to vote against a tax to fund the new Milwaukee Brewers stadium. The fact that it is now a reflexive recourse says more about how our national politics have changed than how Wisconsin has changed. All politics is now national.

The recall’s most recent resurgence surfaced in the early 2011 attempt to kick Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser off the bench. It was widely touted in liberal circles as a referendum on Walker’s policies, which would have enjoyed the corollary effect of stopping his agenda in the courts.

After a brief election-night liberal victory lap on MSNBC and elsewhere, it turned out that the conservative justice had squeaked out a narrow reelection. But whatever “side” you identify with in this fight, the whole spectacle gave reason for sobriety. Our third branch of government is becoming poisoned by partisan politics—judges considered ideological proxy votes, automatic extensions of state legislative politics instead of independent thinkers making up their own minds on the merits.

And like it or not, Wisconsin’s influence in national politics ain’t going away. The newly elected head of the RNC with the Harry Potter–esque name, Reince Priebus, hails from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home state as well as the once and future GOP poster boy of fiscal conservatism, Paul Ryan.

In a larger sense, the Wisconsin protests are an unwelcome mirror-image extension of the collective freakout on the far right after the election of Barack Obama—overly emotional reactions that seemed to confuse losing an election with living under tyranny. Politics follows the lines of physics: every action creates an equal and opposite reaction.

Elections have consequences. If Walker misreads the electorate by pursuing an agenda that is too extreme, the opportunity to send him a rejection slip is available in regularly scheduled elections. But by advancing the idea that elections can be undone if people only protest hard enough ends up degrading our democracy. It makes the job of governing—which is hard enough—take a back seat to a cycle of constant threats that makes reasoning together all but impossible.

Because no matter who wins these recall elections, the stability of governing in a democracy is the real loser. It will not be the end. After all, Walker will be eligible for recall after one year in office, so mark your calendars for January 2012.

Left unchecked, the logical extension is that in the future, everyone might govern for 15 minutes.