RIPON, Wis. — In the very building where the modern Republican Party was founded more than 150 years ago, the worker collecting the entry fee from tourists said that he, for one, has had enough of what the party is up to these days. And he says he plans to show it when he goes to the polls Tuesday in a legislative recall election that will help determine the fate of the conservative revolution in Wisconsin.
New Republican Gov. Scott Walker's aggressive agenda, especially his move to strip public employees' unions of most collective bargaining rights, has "kind of jump-started a lot of people's awareness of what's going on in the state," said Brian Reilly, 28, who said he intends to vote against the Republican state senator he supported in the past.
Over the next two weeks, eight Wisconsin state lawmakers will face recall elections that were part of the political backlash from Walker's confrontation with Democrats last winter. Protests and a boycott by Democratic state senators effectively shut down the state Capitol for weeks. The GOP must win at least half the races or it will lose sole control of the Legislature and the ability to continue advancing its policies.
The votes will provide a new gauge of the public mood about the direction of government eight months after unhappy voters ousted incumbent Democrats and gave conservative Republicans control of the governor's office and the Legislature. The GOP made similar sweeping gains in other states in the midterm election.
For Republicans, victory in the recall campaign would vindicate their spending cuts and new business-friendly policies, while raising hopes of President Barack Obama losing next year in a swing state he won by 14 points in 2008. Democrats hope voters believe Republicans have gone too far, especially in attacking workers' rights.
"It's not clear whether the mood has shifted dramatically enough to recall Republicans, but it's certainly shifted enough to make some tight races," said Katherine Cramer Walsh, a University of Wisconsin political science professor who directed a recent poll that found dissatisfaction with both Democrats and Republicans.
The poll, conducted statewide last month, showed 59 percent of voters disapproved of the job Walker was doing. But 48 percent also disapproved of the Democratic state senators who left the state for three weeks to prevent the Legislature from acting. Fifty-six percent said they disapproved of the Republican-controlled Legislature's actions. The survey did not address the opinions of voters in the districts with recall elections.
The significance of the recall ballots is reflected by the fact that national conservative groups and national unions have spent millions of dollars in the contested districts, six of which are held by Republicans. Two of the Republicans appear vulnerable and three face tight races. If Democrats win five of the eight seats, control of the Legislature will be divided, producing a deadlock until the 2012 elections.
Judging by the amount of advertising, the battle is fiercest in this district, where Republican incumbent Luther Olsen faces Democratic challenger Fred Clark. Both acknowledge the contest doesn't seem to be about them as candidates.
"I know that third parties have decided this is going to be the one" that swings the overall battle, Olsen said. Outside groups have spent several hundred thousand dollars in two media markets – Madison and Green Bay.
The district is largely rural and includes the popular tourist destination of Wisconsin Dells as well as Ripon, famous for the Little White Schoolhouse where the modern day Republican Party was founded in 1854.
Olsen, a partner in farm supply dealerships, lives in Ripon and was elected in 2004 and 2008 without opposition. But anger over his support of Walker's collective bargaining proposal helped spur a recall petition drive that collected more than 22,000 signatures. That set up Tuesday's election against Clark, a forester and two-term state representative.
Five other Republican incumbents are also on Tuesday's ballot. Two, Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls and Alberta Darling of River Hills, are also thought to have close contests. One, Sen. Rob Cowles of Allouez, is seen as more secure. Two others, Sens. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse, are considered vulnerable.
Two Democratic incumbents face elections on Aug. 16.
In Olsen's district, the Club for Growth and Wisconsin Family Action, both leading conservative groups, had spent $415,000 on attack ads against Clark as of July 22, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The pro-union We Are Wisconsin spent about half that much attacking Olsen.
The blitz has been intense over the last two weeks. "If you want to rein in the Walker agenda, vote against Luther Olsen," declared one broadcast spot.
At Kristina's Family Cafe in Ripon, waitress and former union worker Debbie Henning says everyone is talking about the election and whether it should even be happening.
"They all think this is a bunch of baloney," said Henning, 56, of Ripon. "They were elected, we voted them in."
Tim Duzinske, a local farmer known by his childhood nickname "Fuzz," agrees. "It's a disenfranchisement of the vote taken in November," he said.
Both Duzinske and Henning say they're voting for Olsen.
Pauline Berry, 57, of Ripon, also doesn't like the idea of recalls, but said she plans to switch to Clark this time, for reasons she declined to specify.
Reilly, who works in the building where the Republican Party was founded, said interest in the race is high but no one knows where Wisconsin is headed politically now.
"Do Wisconsin and the people come out the better?" he asked. "That's going to be hard to discern for a long time."