WASHINGTON -- As word spread in February about the Republican proposal to strip Wisconsin's public workers of their collective bargaining rights, protestors marching around the capitol quickly called for the recall of Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his Republican allies in the state legislature. Indeed, the Republican state senators that Democrats eventually targeted during recall efforts were the ones who voted for the bill, while the GOP in turn went after the the Democratic state senators who left the state to delay passage.
But now that those recalls are in full swing, state Democrats are insisting that the elections have moved beyond the labor issue.
"This movement was initiated by Scott Walker's stunning stripping of collective bargaining rights from workers, but it really has become about Scott Walker's budget and the Republican agenda -- which is destroying our schools, which is harming seniors, which is really taking this state in a backwards direction while giving tax breaks for millionaires and corporations and balancing the budget on the backs of working families," said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
"We've been saying that for weeks," he continued. "I think that obviously, organized labor is very energized and engaged in this race, but this is not about collective bargaining. This is about the type of state that Wisconsin is, where our leaders are taking us, and if these values that are being promoted in Madison right now are the values of Wisconsin."
Indeed, the issue of collective bargaining has noticeably taken a backseat in campaign advertising.
In its first television ad aired during the recall campaigns, the labor-backed coalition We Are Wisconsin focused on state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf's (R-River Falls) record of voting for education cuts and tax breaks for corporations. Another recent We Are Wisconsin ad going after state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) also focused on the tax breaks for corporations and the very wealthy.
Six Republican and three Democratic state senators are facing recall elections this summer, with most of the elections taking place in August. On Tuesday, Democrats scored a victory in the first general recall election, with State Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) handily winning reelection.
Democrats need to pick up three seats to win control of the upper chamber, which would give them the power to block many of Walker's proposals. Sen. Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse), whose district has a strong Democratic presence, is widely considered the member most vulnerable to recall. Sens. Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac) and Jim Holperin (D-Conover) are also top targets.
Wisconsin state law requires a public official to be in office for at least a year before being eligible for recall, meaning that Walker won't be ripe until January.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) has hinted that between now and then, Republicans may try to make it harder for the governor to be recalled.
"I have never been a fan of recalls [of lawmakers] on either side of the aisle -- especially for a vote," said Fitzgerald, referring to the fact that single votes on certain issues, such as collective bargaining, can trigger recall campaigns.
Tate, however, said he doubted Fitzgerald would get much Democratic support for his effort.
"While we're in the midst of historic recall elections, it's important to remember that the bar is very high for recalling an elected official in Wisconsin. Because we have seen certain radical changes in the last few months, it may seem much easier than it is," said Tate. "To recall an elected official, you need to get the equivalent of 25 percent of the amount of votes cast in the last election. That's pretty high. To recall Gov. Walker, it's about 550,000 signatures."
"Now I think the recall provision, which as we saw in a poll released last week, is overwhelmingly supported by Wisconsin residents. It's a good law. I don't think it's something that's going to become commonplace in years to come, but we're just in such extraordinary times that people are exercising their recall opportunity given to them. Especially if Senate Democrats take back the majority, I don't anticipate a weakening of recall laws."