Wisconsin Democrats Target GOP Recall

fromWPR

Wisconsin Democrats met this weekend in what the party's spokesman called "the recall convention." The state Senate recall elections, which all target Republicans, are at the top of the party's agenda.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Jacki Lyden.

The next presidential election is still a year and a half away, but campaign season is already in full swing in Wisconsin. Next month, six Republican state senators, and possibly three Democrats, will face recall elections that were born out of the battle over Governor Scott Walker's controversial collective-bargaining plan.

As Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports, Democrats say they'll also put everything they have into trying to recall Walker himself.

SHAWN JOHNSON: Perhaps nowhere in the country was the Democratic Party more decimated than in Wisconsin after the midterm election of 2010. Perhaps nowhere in the country are Democrats more motivated in 2011.

The party got its jolt in February after Governor Scott Walker introduced his plan to curb union-bargaining rights for public employees. Weeks of massive protests at the state Capitol gave way to massive recall petition drives, targeting Republican senators who supported the governor.

At the state Democratic Party Convention this weekend, Chairman Mike Tate said the push came from people who decided they couldn't wait 'til the next election for change.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. MIKE TATE (Chairman, Democratic Party, Wisconsin): Should the people continue to rise up...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. TATE: ...should the people continue to cry out for immediate change, we will recall Scott Walker from office next year.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

JOHNSON: Democrats in other states are hoping to grab some of the energy going into 2012. Illinois Democratic congresswoman Jan Schakowsky told Wisconsin's convention that they had started a prairie fire.

Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you,Wisconsinites, for changing the narrative in the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you.

JOHNSON: But even if the battle over public employee union-bargaining rights doesn't ignite elsewhere, Schakowsky said another Wisconsin issue will. She called Wisconsin Republican congressman Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare the gift that keeps on giving, and credited it for a special-election victory for Democrats in New York.

Ryan already has a Democratic challenger for 2012. Candidate Rob Zerban insists the Ryan Medicare budget was a game changer.

Mr. ROB ZERBAN (Democratic Candidate): People are reading this and they're seeing this, and they're not buying what he's selling. And it's made him extremely vulnerable.

JOHNSON: But Democrat victories in any of these races are far from locks. University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin says Republicans have a few things working in their favor. For example, all the Republican senators up for recall next month won their elections in 2008, during President Obama's landslide victory in Wisconsin.

Professor CHARLES FRANKLIN (Political Science, University of Wisconsin): So that means that the Republicans who are up for recall held onto their seats, even in the face of a very strong Democratic vote.

JOHNSON: Congressman Ryan has never had a close election. And while Walker's poll numbers are sagging, recalling a governor is a monumental task. His opponents would need to gather more than a half-million signatures in just 60 days.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The last name of Wisconsin's Republican Party director is Thompson, not Thomas.]

State Republican Party Director Stephan Thomas says the party stands with Walker.

Mr. STEPHAN THOMPSON (Director, Republican Party, Wisconsin): Absolutely. I mean, the governor has shown that he is trying to reform the state and put us in a new direction. And that's what voters asked for. They wanted change.

JOHNSON: If the Democrats win control of the state Senate next month, they can block the governor's agenda in the short term. In the longer term, unions say they want to use the recalls to show the Walker agenda is not politically viable.

Longtime activist Barb Woodruff knows the stakes are high, but says the fight is worth having.

Ms. Barb Woodruff (Democratic Strategist): In a summary of just a few words, it's a must.

JOHNSON: These campaigns are taking place against a backdrop of continued policy fights in Wisconsin. The collective-bargaining plan that started all this is still held up in court. The State Supreme Court hears arguments on it tomorrow. And the Republican-controlled legislature is preparing to pass Walker's budget for the next two years.

Protesters are ready. They plan to set up a tent city outside the Capitol. They call it Walkerville.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

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Correction June 6, 2011

We mistakenly identified the state Republican Party director as Stephan Thomas. He is Stephan Thompson.

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