Editorial: Wisconsin election is one to watch

  • Updated: August 8, 2011 - 9:28 PM

It's a referendum on the rights of public-sector workers.

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Democratic candidate for Wisconsin state senate Shelly Moore, left, smiled while getting a thumbs up from newly retired congressman Dave Obey Saturday, Aug. 6, in Hudson, WI.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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When politicians refuse to work together for the common good because they're blinded by party interests and ideology, they can expect backlash. Americans are fed up with corrosive rhetoric and gridlock, which is why the approval rating of Congress dipped below 20 percent following the debt-ceiling debate.

Now comes Wisconsin, where today six Republican state senators face a recall election -- a fate that also awaits two Wisconsin Democrats next week. What sparked the recall attempts were the heavy-handed anti-union measures of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, backed by a GOP-controlled state legislature.

The protests that besieged the Badger State's Capitol in Madison earlier this year dominated the national news for weeks. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin to deny Republican lawmakers the quorum necessary to bring Walker's budget bill up for a vote.

Walker, who took office in January, refused to negotiate with Democrats from the outset. Nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin residents disapprove of his performance, according to a recent poll.

President Obama, by contrast, showed a willingness to compromise during the debt ceiling negotiations. He maintains an approval (and disapproval) rating closer to 50 percent, though he's been soundly shredded by both liberal and conservative pundits for his efforts.

Like Obama, Walker inherited a budget mess -- an anticipated $3.6 million deficit. Unlike Obama, Walker's answer was to slash spending, including reductions in the salaries, benefits and collective bargaining rights of teachers and other government workers.

To many in Wisconsin, it felt as if he was exploiting the little guy to protect the interest groups that helped to bankroll the Republican victories last fall.

The political brawl in February was tame compared to the ugliness leading up to Tuesday's vote. Historically, voters have never ousted more than two legislators at a time in recall elections around the country.

If Wisconsin Democrats gain three state Senate seats, they will snatch majority control away from Republicans.

This is an election fueled by political retribution rather than a desire to oust corrupt politicians, the more traditional purpose of recall votes.

With stakes that high, Republicans embraced a deplorable (but legal) strategy of trying to deceive voters. In the July primary, they placed fake Democratic candidates on the Democratic ballots (all lost.)

Ever since, campaign ads have nearly all consisted of attacks, with little room for reasoned debate.

Ads supporting Republican incumbent Sheila Harsdorf in western Wisconsin, seen on Twin Cities stations, are simply deceptive.

In one, a gravelly voice that sounds like actor Morgan Freeman's rages against Democratic candidate Shelly Moore. But the voice isn't Freeman's, who has complained about the ad, which comes across as a celebrity endorsement.

Equally off-putting are the millions of dollars poured into the state by interest groups on both sides.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a coalition of unions has raised $9.7 million to help the Democrats, while conservative groups have showered Republicans with undisclosed millions. In one of the races, the spending exceeds $3 million -- a record for a Wisconsin state Senate race.

Pollsters say the races are too close to call. But the nation will be watching. If the Republicans lose the majority, many will see it as a victory for public-sector workers.

Too bad the lesson about the need for greater political civility is being lost in the process.

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  • WISCONSIN ELECTION

    "Recalls over policy arguments are unwarranted. Such arguments are best resolved on the floors of legislative bodies or at the ballot box during regular elections."

    From an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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