-- The number of Wisconsin public officials recalled from office in the past decade, including three state senators, one mayor and seven Milwaukee county officials.
MILWAUKEE – Pity the residents of Wisconsin.
Like the voters of other swing states, Wisconsinites can look forward to weeks of saturation bombing with negative television ads, mailboxes stuffed with campaign junk mail and tense conversations with friends and co-workers.
But before they get to what is already an ugly battle between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney or what promises to be one of the roughest Senate campaigns in the nation, Badger State residents have already endured two years of non-stop campaigning.
This special form of political torture is a result of Wisconsin’s unlucky status: a swing state with liberal laws regarding the recall of public officials.
Wisconsin was very much part of the progressive movement at the start of the last century, and like other states, embraced the movement’s ideas about more direct democracy. The progressive legacy nationally is mostly about regulations and consumer protection laws, but its most significant short-term success was to amend the Constitution to overturn the framers’ dictum that senators would be chosen by state legislators, not voters.
On the state level, progressives won the power in several places for voters to be able to yank lawmakers out of office by recalls. The republican spirit of the founders was about indirect democracy designed to cool overheated popular sentiment and add stability. The progressives wanted something much closer to direct democracy.
In other states with permissive recall laws, like California, referenda and recalls have made governance nearly impossible. As the Golden State heads for the fiscal abyss, a big part of the problem has been the contradictory demands of plebiscites approved by voters over the years (i.e. No new taxes but please provide massive funding to popular government programs) and jittery lawmakers who are always at risk of a recall revolt.
Wisconsin hasn’t suffered the same way as California, but it is catching up.
State and local officials are spending something more than $12 million to hold a recall election for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, his lieutenant and four Republican state Senators. This comes after other recall votes in seven other senate districts last summer.
The irony is that the recalls are all about the state’s blasted budget. Voters moved sharply right in the 2010 elections and gave Republicans total control of state government. The GOP’s solution to Wisconsin’s budget mess was to axe spending and curb the power of state worker unions to collectively bargain and compel civil servants to pay dues.
Modern-day liberals and union members, heirs of the progressive movement, responded by invoking the recall provisions. Unions have a big upper hand when it comes to recall votes. Special elections are usually low-turnout affairs in which union loyalists can have an outsized effect while moderate voters stay home.
Plus, with Wisconsin being a swing state, national groups on both sides were quick to provide money and logistic support, further feeding the fire.
The unions and Democrats, though, came up one seat short last summer in their bid to flip the state Senate. They had already come up short in a state Supreme Court race that turned into a proxy fight over Walker’s budget plan, making it a second defeat. But with money flowing and government workers still outraged, the recall train roared on.
Today in Wisconsin, voter turnout is expected to be historically high for the final act of this electoral drama. Perhaps not surprising because it, and the awful row over the law that triggered the vote, have dominated the discussion in the state for a year and a half.
The Badger State, one of the friendliest, most neighborly places in the land, has been rubbed raw by endless political conflict. Voters are grouchy and deeply divided.
In Madison on Monday, passersby randomly splurted one particular reproductive expletive at FOX News crews in town to cover the vote. Some of these splurters were of the hobo set, but some were dressed for work and seemed otherwise normal.
This kind of behavior has been a boon to Walker and the Republicans as moderate voters look on aghast as their decorous, civil state devolves into the political Hatfields and McCoys. Pro-Walker voters across the state told Power Play over and over that discouraging the use of recalls to punish political adversaries was as big a part of their choice as anything.
We talk a lot about the new the “permanent campaign,” but in Wisconsin that’s been the reality since 2010. It’s not surprising that voters would like to take a break.
Unfortunately for them, no sooner will they have completed this travail than the general election artillery barrage will begin.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“I think it will affect the history of unionization in the country, a blow. It will be Armageddon for the government worker unions if they lose. They will have had three shots at this and lost every one.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.