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Wisconsin Recalls: A Numbers Game

Unions are fighting back against bills pending in state legislatures around the nation that seek to curb or eliminate such things as collective bargaining, automatic-dues deduction, or strikes, as I report in this week's edition of Education Week. They're using a variety of tools, which include everything from lobbying to lawsuits.

One aspect I didn't have much space to write about in the story deserves some special attention: efforts in Wisconsin to recall eight Republicans.

Campaign-finance laws forbid dues money from being used for campaigns and elections; they have to come out of PACs, and union sources I spoke to noted that they're only allowed to start using those dollars after all the required signatures are in and the elections are a go. But they are closely watching the action, so expect plenty of PAC dollars if and when the elections come to pass.

And what might the impact of those elections be? Well, as they say on online-dating sites, it's complicated. For one, the law says that officials being recalled have to have served a year, which means that neither Gov. Scott Walker nor the Republicans who swept into office with him are eligible. Then there are the thousands of required signatures to be collected in just 60 days and other procedural hurdles.

Assuming those are met, of the eight Republican senators who are the targets of recall action, three—Dan Kapanke, Alberta Darling, and Randy Hopper—seem to be potentially in danger: They won their elections with less than 52 percent of the vote. Of those, only in Kapanke's district did Gov. Walker do less well than he did statewide in the 2010 election, generally a good indication of how right- or left-leaning a district is.

If all three seats go to recall and flip, and if no Democratic seats are lost (Republicans are trying to recall some Democratic senators, too) the Senate will be majority Democrat. But even then it's not likely that a bill to repeal the collective bargaining law will go through. Why? Because it would probably not pass the Republican-dominated House or be signed into law by Walker.

So if you are the Wisconsin Education Association Council (or the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers), why would you put money into an election without an immediate payoff?

"Really the only alternative is to wait until the November 2012 election and mount a massive general-election campaign," said Charles Franklin, a political analyst and polling expert I interviewed.

That will probably happen in any case, and so what the recall really offers is a good trial run for figuring out strategies and messaging that resonate with workers.

Polls in the state show, for instance, that a majority of the public thinks that unions should have public-sector bargaining rights, but a significant number also think public-sector workers should pay more for benefits. Translation: Running on the basis that your existence is at stake probably has a good shot of ringing true with voters, while running on a platform to preserve current benefits is probably riskier.

Franklin cautions that voter turnout is key in these kinds of elections, which usually have low turnouts. So both sides will really be mobilizing if and when they come to pass.

Looking down the road to 2012: Wisconsin isn't really a "red" state, and some of the 2010 Republican victories were relatively small. So shifting the composition of the legislature in 2012 will be a challenge, but not impossible, Franklin said.

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