No, Senator, the candidates really do still matter…

Wisconsin Senate President Mike Ellis had some great quotes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this past weekend, although he seems a little confused about who is doing the damage in Wisconsin over the past few months. Addressing comments by GOP Chairman Reince Priebus that the RNC was “all in” for the Wisconsin recalls, the Senate president expressed concern that it wouldn’t be enough to protect the Republican majority in the upper house, with the August recall elections looming.

“Maybe the cavalry should have gotten here before they stormed the fort, plundered the arsenal, poisoned the well and put us in the stockade,” Ellis said. (Nice metaphors, but the GOP was still running wild and free the last time we checked.) What he continued with, however, is something that everyone should be thinking about: that the present state of elections has left candidates as bystanders in their own campaigns.

“For the first time in the history of Wisconsin politics – and you can print this – candidates are now almost irrelevant to campaigns,” he said. “They have hijacked these elections – both sides. And the candidates have nothing to do with it.”

 Actually, it isn’t the first time. The model was pioneered by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Club for Growth and others over several Supreme Court election cycles. What’s different this time is that Republicans and their operatives aren’t driving it. That may be why Ellis sees it differently.

It needs to be remembered that the Republicans succeeded in setting up three recall elections for Democratic senators as the Democrats were setting up a half dozen for Republicans. The GOP also put up “fake Democrats” to challenge for the right to face their own incumbents in each of the Republican recall districts, wasting time and taxpayer money. Voters saw right through it, but here’s the other problem that the Republicans have: they ran with weak candidates.

Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen has already steamrolled through his general recall election in a fairly conservative district and it looks increasingly like the GOP may go zero-for-three on that side of the ledger. More importantly, the Republicans lost any moral high ground that they might have had to say that recalls aren’t a proper way to redress policy disagreements. Instead, they doubled down to make a mockery of the process by putting hypocrite stooges on the Democratic primary ballots. That kind of stuff may sound good after a few martinis at the Madison Club, but it doesn’t play very well to voters who take their responsibility and representation seriously.

Conversely, the Democrats found strong candidates for every Republican recall race. Incumbent Assembly Democrats are running in three of the Senate races. There is a former county executive, a long-time activist with solid political chops and a vice mayor who came within a whisker of winning the senate seat from her GOP opponent in 2006 (and he’s a fellow that has picked up nothing but personal and political baggage ever since.) Democrats also shunned the notion of running disingenuous candidates in GOP primaries, leaving the Republicans in the unenviable position of having run more dubious candidates in this extraordinary election cycle than they have seats to defend.

It is a great advantage to be able to define your opponent in a campaign and in this go-around, the Democrats can define each and every one of their Republican opponents in very simple terms. The GOP senators all voted lockstep to advance Scott Walker’s extremist, right wing agenda on every important issue that came up for a vote. There’s no running away from it. A vote for any of these senators is a vote for Scott Walker and polls have shown that Walker has blown a ton of political capital getting his uncompromising way over the past seven months. So along with solid contenders in every race opposing them, the Republicans are in a set of political Chinese handcuffs. They are literally running against themselves and their own governor — and yes, the candidates do matter.

When I first listed the GOP senators eligible for recall on February 17 and suggested it as a possible remedy for what was going on in Madison – something that obviously occurred to others, too — I didn’t expect to see 75 percent of them showing up on recall ballots this year. Even more surprising is that races which might have been written off as windmill jousting if they had occurred last fall are showing up very competitive in the polls this summer (and that is why the money is pouring in.) The energy and enthusiasm from the Democratic side has been nothing short of astounding. Last November, a sizeable share of union households voted for Scott Walker. That’s simply not going to happen this summer.

Meanwhile, Gov. Walker is so politically toxic that his public appearances are almost exclusively limited to closed partisan or friendly gatherings, with a few short-notice photo ops on private property thown in that are open only to supporters and “credentialed media.” When he strays from that mode, large crowds of protesters greet him, tainting his message in even the most mundane and ministerial settings.

Bottom line: it’s costing Republicans tens of millions of dollars to try to hang onto power during a year in which there should have been no legislative elections at all. Worse yet for them, there is a very good chance that they will fail.


Recalls aside, give GOP puppet masters an A+:


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