Aug. 9, 2011 -- Wisconsin voters head to the polls today in six recall votes that both political parties stress have implications not just for the Badger state but the entire country.
Outside groups on both sides have poured in millions of dollars for television advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Democrats hope to take three of the seats to flip the state Senate from Republican to Democratic control, and also set the stage for similar collective bargaining and budget fights in other states.
Six Republican state senators are facing recall votes today in mostly tight races that will depend on voter turnout in an unusual summer election, when much of the electorate are thinking more about vacations than going to the polls.
Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, said Democrats appear to have more enthusiasm but it's a tossup at this point.
"It looks right now like two seats are leaning Democratic and two are in the tossup category," he said. "Two of the races were leaning Republican up until this week, which seems to be picking up a trend that the Democrats may do better than expected."
The recall effort began in January when Republican Gov. Scott Walker assumed office and Republicans gained control of the state legislature, putting forward a budget aimed at austerity and limiting the rising costs of public employee benefits by ending collective bargaining for all public workers except police and firefighters.
Democrats in the state legislature left the state to avoid voting on the measure, while thousands of protesters on both sides of the issue flooded the state capital to protest or support Walker's move. After Walker signed the legislation, Democrats began gathering signatures on petitions to recall specific senators who were eligible.
Republicans responded in kind, saying Democrats abandoned their duty. Enough signatures were gathered to target six Republicans and two Democrats. If the Senate does change hands, Democrats could overturn Walker's legislation.
The level of campaign spending has been unprecedented, especially considering it is a recall effort. Spending through Monday was estimated at about $28 million from outside groups on both sides of the aisle and about $5 million spent by the candidates themselves, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
That number was expected to increase by today. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign officials "estimate at this point it's about even," research director Mike Buelow said of spending on both sides.
The group will do a full accounting of spending after the election and will have a clearer picture of whether the spending totals are even.
JR Ross, the editor of Wispolitics.com, said turnout will determine which side is victorious by the end of the day.
"I don't care who you talk to who says they know, they don't," Ross said. "It's all about turnout. We're in an unprecedented situation. … We don't have elections in August in Wisconsin in the middle of summer.
"We do know that Democrats and union members are motivated and angry at Republicans and Walker specifically. If Republican voters can match that intensity and turn out in numbers to protect their guys, [then the Republican senators will be safe]. If not, the Democrats win control."
Both sides are so invested financially and on the ground because of the national message a victory on either side will send.
Wisconsin Vote a 'Dry Run' for 2012
The Tea Party Express is on a nine-city, get-out-the-vote tour in Wisconsin that ended with a rally Monday night in the Green Bay area. Tea Party Express Chair Amy Kremer was clear about the national fall out if the Republicans are not successful at keeping the state legislature. The movement has generated "excited crowds," she said, but a loss today would give Democrats the "courage" to wage similar efforts in other states.
"If these conservatives don't have the support to do the right thing in Wisconsin, then this will happen in states around the country," Kremer said. "In Wisconsin, the Republicans and Gov. Walker were able to balance the budget in such a short time, stimulate job growth, and put people back to work.
"That's what Washington can take a look at, as well as other steps… If the Democrats win back the senate tomorrow and reverse what Walker has done, it emboldens the left and doesn't encourage conservatives around the country to take these big, bold steps."
Kelly Steele, a spokesman for We are Wisconsin, a political action committee made up of labor, progressive and other liberal groups that are working to win the recall elections, said "enthusiasm here is as high as it's been" on their side.
He agreed that although their fight began with the protests after Walker moved to end collective bargaining rights for all public workers except police and firefighters, it has spread to other states.
"One thing Wisconsin indicates is when working families and communities are under attack, they will stand up and fight for the values they expect for their government and their voices are going to be heard," Steele said, pointing out that all six Republicans won their seats in 2008 when Obama won the state by 14 points and that "none of these are easy districts."
Ross of Wispolitics.com agreed that although the fight was born out of Wisconsin issues, it is a "dry run" for both national Democrats and Republicans for 2012.
"Barack Obama can't win the presidency in 2011 without Wisconsin," Ross said of Wisconsin's having gone Democratic every presidential election since 1976, except for Reagan's victory in 1984. "People are motivated and, in turn, a more friendly environment [in the state legislature] can go a ways for them. It's a dry run where they can micro-target voters, and get engaged ahead of next fall."
The Tea Party's Kremer said their fight is "crucial" and called Wisconsin "ground zero for the 2012 campaign."
"We are a threat to the union power. We are a threat to the leftist agenda, to the liberal left agenda and Barack Obama can't win an election without winning this state," Kremer said. "It is critical conservatives stay strong and stay together because if the Democrats win tomorrow, it just emboldens the left."
If the Democrats are successful today, professor Heim said, they will pursue a recall effort for Gov. Walker, which would have "national implications" because other unpopular governors across the country would take notice.
After today's election, there are two more recall elections next week. Two Democratic senators are facing recall Aug. 16. Heim called the strategy around whether the state Senate will remain in Republican control a "chess game." If Democrats pick up three seats today, it "gives both sides one week to form their strategy for those races," he said
In the two Democratic recall races, one of the senators looks to be safe, while the other senator's district is more conservative and he is seen as vulnerable.
"What happens tomorrow," Heim said, "determines the following week."