What If?

This is the question pondered by prognosticators. And given the biggest political year in Wisconsin history, this is a question that will be asked again and again: What if? 

What if recall elections against Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and several GOP state senators go forward? 

How will those recall elections impact an already important election year that features an open U.S. Senate seat for the first time since 1988, regular legislative elections and a pivotal presidential contest? 

The most predictable thing is the unpredictability of the what-if scenarios and the political times we’re in. Remember the chaos surrounding the nine state Senate recall elections last year, the “fake” primaries, massive advertising spending and accusations of cheating and political skullduggery from both sides. Who could have predicted that in early 2011? 

The result was two election dates in August and Democrats falling short of their goal to take control of the state Senate. In 2012, the stakes are much higher, and so the maneuvering, the nasty ads and the spending will be unprecedented for Wisconsin politics. Some have predicted spending of close to $100 million by year’s end. As the Bachman Turner Overdrive song says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” 

The Assembly, with a 20-seat Republican majority, is seen as highly unlikely to switch to Democratic control, even if a federal court redraws Republican redistricting maps after a trial in mid-February. 

And legal challenges may throw off the timing of events and how they play out. While the Government Accountability Board wants all the recall elections on one date, that may not happen because of deadline extensions, primaries and legal challenges — already in motion by March 1 when this article was put to bed. 

A recall election for Walker appears inevitable after the governor's campaign unexpectedly decided to forgo challenges to specific signatures, declaring it simply didn’t have the time and that the GAB should follow a circuit court decision to “take affirmative steps to remove duplicative, invalid or fraudulent signatures.” 

That disappointed the conservative groups that had worked overtime scoping out what they said were thousands of faulty signatures. The development has insiders buzzing about whether Walker wants to speed up the election timetable.  It’s still unclear when a midterm gubernatorial election — the first one in state history — might take place.

But while likely, recall elections for Kleefisch and at least three GOP state senators are less certain. And as with the governor’s race, their timing is up in the air because of potential primaries and legal challenges. Critics raise the specter of six separate general election recall dates, raising the cost of staging these elections into tens of millions of dollars. 

Insiders predict a gubernatorial election sometime this summer, which would appear to benefit Walker because college students will be out of school and not so easily organized to campaign and vote. 

But what if — here we go again! — a Democratic primary for governor, various legal challenges and other delays push the general election into August or September, perhaps even to the date of the statewide primary that used to be held after Labor Day? 

Given a robust GOP U.S. Senate primary, that would seem to help Walker, who’d get an extra dose of conservative turnout as primary voters choose among Jeff Fitzgerald, the Assembly speaker; Mark Neumann, the homebuilder and former congressman; and Tommy Thompson, the former governor and George W. Bush’s first health secretary. Eric Hovde, a wealthy businessman with ties to the Madison area, also is seen as a possible GOP candidate. The winner of the August primary will face Tammy Baldwin. 

But the Democratic candidate also might get a boost from a primary in the liberal-leaning 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses Madison and Dane County.

That’s where Baldwin is giving up her longtime seat. Her bid for Herb Kohl’s U.S. Senate seat leaves several Democrats to vie for that relatively safe congressional seat: state Reps. Mark Pocan and Kelda Helen Roys, and Dane County Treasurer Dave Worzala. 

As you can see, the what-ifs are just starting. What does it all mean for the 2012 election season? Gleaned from election-watchers from across the political spectrum, here are some of the what-if scenarios that could arise.

What if Republicans sweep the recalls, with Walker winning, Kleefisch winning and GOP senators scoring victories? 

This would be billed as the ultimate “silent majority” victory, a huge victory for conservatives in Wisconsin and nationally and a blow to President Obama’s re-election. If this happened, some Democrats fear, Obama would be left with a dejected base as he seeks to win a key upper Midwestern state. Obama won by double-digits over John McCain in Wisconsin in 2008, carrying a lot of Democratic legislators into office and extending a Democratic top-of-the-ticket winning streak in Wisconsin that dates to 1988. 

But conservatives say passions are running high because of the recall, so getting their troops motivated won’t be difficult. The problem may be that the recalls are so dominating that other campaigns — even the U.S. Senate— won’t get their usual attention. It’s all recalls all the time. But whether that intensity can hold for months remains to be seen. 

Politicos don’t rule out a Republican sweep, but many consider it unlikely because of the precarious state of the Republican Senate. The GOP majority in the state Senate was cut to 17-16 after Dan Kapanke of La Crosse and Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac were knocked off in the summer 2011 recall elections. 

Now, three of the four recall targets (all but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald) are viewed as vulnerable — in part because Republicans and influential third-party groups are going to the wall for Walker in terms of money, advertising and organizing. If their elections are on the same day as Walker’s, that could help them and the GOP majority survive. 

If not, many see the odds rising that Democrats would take over the chamber for the summer and maybe into the next two-year session . That’s because only one of three vulnerable GOP freshmen targeted — Terry Moulton of the Eau Claire area, Pam Galloway of the Wausau area and Van Wanggaard of the Racine area — would have to lose. 

But with that big majority in the Assembly, many Republicans say the odds are good that the big conservative agenda items enacted in 2011 will survive for years to come.

What if there’s a split decision, with Walker and Kleefisch winning and Democrats gaining control of the state Senate? 

This is viewed by election-watchers as a much more probable scenario, given the vulnerabilities of three of four GOP state senators. 

For Republicans this could be tolerable. Analysts point out that even if Democrats take control of the Senate, the GOP could win it right back in the fall elections. And they ask what does it matter if Democrats run the Senate for a few months but Walker still occupies the East Wing and Assembly Republicans are still in power? 

For Democrats, winning the Senate but losing the Walker race would be a big disappointment. How could Democrats and Walker opponents, who announced with great flourish that they had gathered about 1 million recall signatures, lose? 

Experts say it could be a combination of things, including aggressive fundraising and early advertising by Walker and his allies when his opponents were absent from the airwaves, an election months away from the excitement of turning in the recall signatures, an improving state economy, and the emergence of a real opponent. 
Republicans stress that this election is not a pure referendum on the governor.

Rather, it’s a choice between Walker and a Democrat, whose flaws would be fully exploited by Walker and allied groups through a searing negative campaign. 
Conservatives were busy preparing their opposition research books even as Democrats maneuvered for what was considered a likely primary. 

Some Democrats hold out the hope that Herb Kohl would come to the rescue, offering himself up as a two-year caretaker, moving the state back to the middle and then stepping aside. Kohl stepped out of a U.S. Senate re-election race because of the bitter political environment. Politicos are skeptical he’d jump back into the frying pan. But there are a few who think Kohl, a one-time state Democratic Party chair, could be convinced to think of it as a burden to carry for Democrats. 

Without Kohl, Democrats likely would be left with a set of flawed front-runners, election watchers say. The front-runners, as of mid-February, are Kathleen Falk and Tom Barrett, but both are two-time statewide losers. Falk lost a previous gubernatorial bid in a primary with Jim Doyle and then lost an attorney general race; Barrett lost in the same gubernatorial primary in 2002 and then in 2010 against Walker. 

Falk is a declared candidate and the favorite of key public-sector unions. But being branded with the union label can be risky — as evidenced by her endorsement by the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the perception, though denied by the teachers’ union, that Falk had taken a union pledge to veto any budget that didn’t contain a return to full collective bargaining rights. Analysts say the episode will likely be a turnoff for independent voters 

Barrett has his own delicate situation. He has to first run for re-election as mayor of Milwaukee in April and mend fences with union activists angry over his threatened takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools in 2010 and his use of Walker-backed collective-bargaining changes in balancing the city budget. 

In an interview, Barrett said a primary could be a good thing for Democrats in a recall against Walker. Or not. “If it were a firing squad and everybody lined up in a circle, it would be bad,” Barrett said. But if the Democrats traveled around the state “talking about the failures of the Walker administration, in terms of his sleight of hand on collective bargaining, something he never talked about during the campaign,” that could be a positive. 

The more the voters are reminded of that story, Barrett said, “the more they recognize that the [budget] savings [Walker] sought … could have been achieved without going after his political opponents.” 

Republicans, meanwhile, have prepared a host of talking points aimed at Falk, calling her the candidate of big labor bosses and an environmental extremist on the issue of the proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. 

Republican pollster Gene Ulm, of Public Opinion Strategies, maintains that conservative voters outnumber others in Wisconsin. Although he called the state unusually polarized lately — “There’s nothing but love or hate, there’s no ‘like’ going on in Wisconsin” — the percentage who approve of Walker’s job performance will figure highly, he said. 

“The rest is how well, to be crass about it, how well Kathleen Falk is disqualified to being governor of this state,” Ulm told a WisPolitics.com luncheon in January. 
Also at the luncheon, Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster based in Madison who’s working for Falk’s campaign, said the winning candidate will need to appeal to independent voters in Wisconsin and that collective bargaining rights shouldn’t be the candidate’s only focus. He said Falk could do that. 

“I think for any Democrat, there’s going to be a question about, ‘Can you be a governor, can you handle this job, can you deal with the Legislature, can you negotiate with everybody — workers, business, union, etc.?’ I think she has a tremendous amount of credibility in that.” 

Backers also see Falk as the candidate who could best keep the liberal passions burning and Walker’s gender gap intact. Falk, however, talks about a return to a nicer state of politics. She says that Walker’s confrontational approach “has torn our state apart, and that’s why a million people are recalling this governor.” She touts what she says is her record of negotiating with unions to save taxpayers money without cutting workers rights. 

The other candidate of note to declare early is state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, a western Wisconsin Democrat who hasn’t always toed the party line.

What if there’s a Democratic sweep, with Walker and Kleefisch losing, and the GOP Senate switching over to Democrats? 

Democrats contend there is a recipe for a sweep: First, a friendly primary that remains focused on Walker and gives the winner a boost into the general election (as Walker got a lift after his victory over Mark Neumann in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary); then add in a sputtering economy and the mystery ingredient — a Milwaukee County John Doe investigation that seemingly gets closer and closer to Walker. 

More on the John Doe to come, but first the economy. 

Analysts say Walker was elected because of voter discontent with the state’s economic malaise. While economists say the recession has ended, it sure hasn’t felt that way in Wisconsin, where job growth has been largely stagnant. 

Walker promised an improved business climate and 250,000 new jobs in four years — a pledge that seemed pretty safe to most experts in 2010. The jobs bounce-back from the downturn in the early 1980s, for example, helped propel Tommy Thompson into the East Wing of the Capitol and into the longest gubernatorial tenure in state history. 

But while the unemployment rate dropped in Walker’s first year, from 7.5 percent to 7.1 percent, and the rate remained below the national average, the governor hardly made a dent in his 250,000 new-jobs pledge. So like Obama, Walker needs to show economic improvement to win back the independent-minded voters who put him into office, political vets say. 

This is why Walker spent so much time on the “turning around Wisconsin” theme in his second State of the State message, those vets say, and this is why he went outstate to sell that message. The governor is arguing that his reforms are working and that Wisconsin’s business climate has improved dramatically. 

But Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) counters that Walker is failing in his most important campaign pledge, pointing out that the state had lost jobs for six straight months. “He said [that job creation] was so vital, he was going to tattoo it on the foreheads of his cabinet secretaries. I didn’t see that tattoo,” Barca said. 

Finally, there’s debate over the fallout from an all-Democratic victory this year. Would it mean all of the changes forced through by Walker and Republicans would be rolled back? 

The short answer is no, assuming Assembly Republicans maintain their majority in the regular fall elections. Even if a Democrat sits in the East Wing of the Capitol, and Democrats win the Senate in the summer and then maintain it in the fall, a GOP Assembly could be Republicans’ firewall against a policy rollback.

What if the Milwaukee County John Doe probe snares more Republicans close to Walker or directly targets Walker? 

Insiders think the John Doe probe may be the biggest threat to Walker, in part because it’s unknown exactly where the investigation is going. Walker defenders attack it as “selective prosecution” by Democratic Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. But those who remember Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard’s prosecutions in the “caucus scandal” say the motivation of the prosecutor doesn’t matter, only how far he reaches. Blanchard’s reach toppled legislative leaders Chuck Chvala and Scott Jensen. 

A link to the caucus scandal is Kelly Rindfleisch. She is a longtime Republican campaign and legislative aide who was granted immunity in the caucus scandal only to be charged recently by Milwaukee County prosecutors for doing campaign work for then-lieutenant governor candidate and legislator Brett Davis (now an official in Walker’s health department) while she was Walker’s deputy chief of staff at the Milwaukee County executive’s office in 2010. 

The charges against Rindfleisch and Darlene Wink provided new ammo for Democrats and new worries for Republicans. Speculation is rampant that there’s more to come, especially given the revelations of a secret email system and suggestions that digital evidence was destroyed and that others may be implicated.

Walker has told reporters: “I have every confidence that when this is completed, people will see that our integrity remains intact.” He says his campaign has been cooperating with the investigation. But in early February, Walker revealed that he had hired criminal defense attorneys and would meet with prosecutors. “They would like to talk to us about it, but we voluntarily set it up,” he said. 

State Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate says Walker’s voluntary meeting with prosecutors “was not as ‘voluntary’ as he has made it seem.” He further charges: “Even when the public has become newly focused on allegations of crimes committed on his behalf, Scott Walker cannot muster a plain and honest explanation of things.” 

Observers conclude that even if Walker isn’t a target of the investigation, opponents will certainly tie him to it with the aim of hurting his ability to win back those independent voters who helped put him in office.

National forces are pondering these what-if scenarios with nervous anticipation. They know that when “what if” becomes “what is,” the consequences will likely be major for the Obama campaign, other Republican governors, unions and the warring congressional factions in Washington, D.C. 

Wisconsin has long been a bellwether state for politics in the rest of the country. In 2006 and 2008, Wisconsin swung left. In 2010, the state went way right. Which direction will the Wisconsin electorate turn in 2012 — right, left or down the middle? 

The winds are swirling right now and then will increase to hurricane force. Even after the storm, there may not be clear sailing for either party. 
Hold on. We’re all in for quite a ride. 

Jeff Mayers is president of WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com, non-partisan web sites and news services based in Madison.