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EAU CLAIRE, WIS. - He's been called a fake Democrat, a political fraud and a pawn for the Republican Party. But in the raging debate that now defines Wisconsin politics, James Engel remains unfazed.
Equipped only with a homemade lawn sign, a $500 campaign budget funded from his own pocketbook and a firm determination to make a difference, the retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinator insists his bid for the Wisconsin state Senate is legitimate, even as critics pounce and question his motives.
"I've certainly been called worse," the self-described political "independent" said.
It's recall season in the Badger state, and the nation is watching. With control of a state ruled by conservative Republicans up for grabs, Democrats are vying to not only oust Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his lieutenant governor, but also four Republican state senators in a bid to win back the Senate.
But sorting through the political gamesmanship to determine which campaigns are real or fake is tricky business.
Under Wisconsin law, a candidate does not have to be a member of a party to seek its nomination. To ensure that general elections for all six races were held on the same day -- to maximize Republican turnout in a state with arguably more Democrats -- the Republican Party persuaded six "protest" or "placeholder" candidates to run in Democratic primaries.
One is Engel, 74, who will run against former Rep. Kristen Dexter in the Democratic primary here in District 23, a largely rural area about 100 miles east of the Twin Cities. The winner will face incumbent Terry Moulton, a Republican, in the June 5 general election.
"You will hear that I am a fake," Engel said while preparing for a recent radio interview. "But I intend to give it my very all. I'm trying. I'm seriously trying."
'A cynical move'
Wisconsin law stipulates that recall elections be held six weeks after the state's Government Accountability Board certifies a voter recall petition. If more than one candidate challenges the incumbent, that election becomes the primary and the general election is held four weeks after that.
With at least four Democrats initially competing to challenge Walker in the state's first-ever gubernatorial recall, a May 8 primary and June 5 general election were assured.
But to ensure elections in the other five races were also held June 5, Republicans recently put up "fake" candidates in contests where Democrats were running unopposed.
There's a slim chance that if enough Republicans cross party lines and vote in the Democratic primary, a "protest" candidate could win, said Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
But the strategy "also forces the Democrats to do a little more campaigning than they otherwise might have," he said.
Dexter, who served two years in the Wisconsin State Assembly before being defeated in 2010, sees the strategy as "a very cynical move" intended to confuse voters.
She points to a March 31 letter in Engel's name circulated by Republicans that was addressed "Dear Fellow Conservative." It credited the Republican-dominated Legislature for "giving us hope for a brighter future" and blamed "liberal Democrats and their union allies" for the state's financial woes.
Engel said someone from the Republican Party called him in late March to recruit him for the race. The party would help gather signatures necessary to get him on the ballot.
He said he was aware of the letter, but never signed it or saw it before it went out.
"I don't want to go around calling people 'those liberal Democrats,'" he said. "That turns me off. I would have preferred the language would have been toned down."
Earlier this month, Democrats challenged the legitimacy of the six candidates to the Government Accountability Board. After reviewing the complaint, the board denied the challenge.
"We are being asked ... to determine whether candidates are lying," board member Timothy Vocke said. "That is an impossible task for this board or anybody else to solve. It is something strictly for the voters to do."
While Republicans used the same strategy in six Senate recall campaigns last summer, holding onto four seats, Dexter said it's taking a toll on some voters.
"When I talk with voters they shake their head and they say 'Are you kidding me?'" she said. "There is confusion. And my fear is that the bigger, more dangerous ramification is cynicism and voter disengagement."
"It does make it hard, because you don't know what to believe, even if you do your research," said Rebecca Kitelinger, 31, a mother of two from Chippewa Falls.
Setting a tone
Whether the political maneuvering will make a difference June 5 is uncertain.
Even if Democrats oust Walker and win control of the Senate, the Legislature is not scheduled to convene again until January, two months after November elections could reshape the Senate and Assembly rosters again. Even then, no one expects the Republican-dominated Assembly to turn Democrat, Heim said.
"This is largely symbolic," he said.
But Dexter argues Democratic control of the Senate would not only boost party morale heading into the fall elections, but also signal a change in the state's political tone. "I think that's what the voters have been asking for," she said. "I think that's why they took to the streets. Things are out of balance."
Engel, a fiscal conservative who has pledged to shrink government and reduce debt, agrees.
If elected, he said, he would "reach out to both aisles. I think the polarization is tearing the fabric of the state apart. And that's simply not good for the citizens."
Getting out his message, however, hasn't been easy.
While Moulton and Dexter have several paid staffers and many volunteers, Engel mostly campaigns alone, driving the district almost daily in a three-year-old minivan to talk with constituents outside cafes and shops.
While Moulton and Dexter have raised substantial sums, Engel has solicited no campaign contributions and has spent little.
And while his competitors have signs dotting neighborhoods and storefronts throughout the district, Engel has only one -- a homemade plywood board that sits outside his wife's antique shop in tiny Ludington, outside Eau Claire.
Engel, who once ran for the town board and lost, said he thought about displaying the sign by his van while canvassing the district. But he said he thought better of it when he realized he would probably need a permit.
"You can tell how novice I am in politics."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425