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Olsen is a veteran of the Wisconsin Legislature. First elected to the state Assembly in 1994, he was elected to the Senate in 2004 and again in 2008. He did not face opposition in either of his Senate bids. He faces state Rep. Fred Clark (D) in the recall election.
Darling, 67, has served in the Wisconsin Senate since 1992. While she won re-election narrowly in 2008 by only 1,007 votes out of more than 99,000 cast, Darling initially wasn’t expected to have much difficulty winning the recall. But Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch is proving to be a more formidable opponent than expected.
Polling shows both Clark and Darling to be in nail-biters, with some Republicans prepared for the worst and grumbling that national Democratic groups are more energized and that Wisconsin Republicans made a mistake by not seeking more help nationally.
Two other Republican Senators facing recalls, Robert Cowles and Sheila Harsdorf, seem to be running much better than their GOP colleagues. Harsdorf’s opponent is Shelly Moore, a Wisconsin Education Association Council activist, while Cowles faces former Brown County executive Nancy Nusbaum, who lost a 2006 Democratic Congressional primary to Steve Kagen.
Democratic state Sen. Jim Holperin faces a recall election the following week, and he was elected in 2008 with only
51 percent of the vote. But GOP opponent Kim Simac is a clear underdog against Holperin.
The bottom line on all this appears to favor the Democrats. Control of the Wisconsin Senate rests on just a few races, with Republicans needing to squeeze out victories by Olsen and Darling and to avoid other upsets. That’s possible but probably unlikely, given Democratic enthusiasm in the state.
“The average Republican voters in Wisconsin viewed the passage of the Walker proposals in March as the end of a tough battle, while Democrats viewed it as the beginning,” said Chris Jankowski of the Republican State Leadership Council, which seeks to elect Republicans to down-ballot statewide and state legislative offices.
Democratic victories in Wisconsin next week and the party’s control of the state Senate would be a shot in the arm nationally for a party that is widely viewed to have “lost” in Washington, D.C.’s recent debt ceiling battle.
Democratic success in Wisconsin would also boost morale in a number of other states where unpopular GOP governors have mobilized Democratic opposition.
But some Democratic strategists are already trying to temper expectations about the possibility of Wisconsin-style victories elsewhere.
“This was relatively easy to do in Wisconsin because of the state law and because there were white-hot issues of the moment that spurred Democrats on,” one Democratic political veteran told me. “Repeating this in other states simply won’t be as easy.”
The same Democrat admitted that failing to win back the state Senate in Wisconsin “would be deflating elsewhere.”
There is another reason for Democrats to be cautious about recall victories. Republicans have already redrawn the state’s legislative districts for 2012, and the new lines will give the GOP every opportunity to regain control of the state Senate next year, even if it loses its majority in next week’s recalls.
Still, a win is a win, and the Wisconsin recall elections will be a big win for one of the parties.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.