Thursday, July 7, 2011

Recall Defenses: Does it matter if the recall proponents are viewed as a political party or as an interest group?

The nine Wisconsin recalls present an unusual comparison of tactical defenses. Is there an advantage if the recall is perceived to be launched by the opposing party or by a specific and well-defined interest group?

In Wisconsin, both parties have tried both tactics. The Republicans have claimed that the recalls were launched by the Democratic Party or they could have tried to tie the recall as being backed solely by a specific interest group -- labor unions. While the Democrats had less of a case to make, they could have used the interest group angle as well (and arguably did with the discussions of the Koch Brothers and other out of state backers).

As the following examples show, I believe that an official facing a recall would generally best be served by claiming it is an attack by a specific interest group, rather than claiming that it is a partisan battle.

Some major caveats: We are dealing with a very small sample size, so take this discussion with the requisite grain of salt. This is all about perception – people will always argue about the basis of a recall. This discussion is about the generally accepted popular perception.

Almost all recalls are claimed to be launched by unaffiliated concerned citizens, not by a party or interest group. But not all recalls are equal. Some are clearly opposition party backed. Others are from local groups of citizens, many with political axes to grind. Most of these are tied to a specific issue (taxes, pay raises for legislators, local school board initiative).

However, there are a few recalls that stand out as being interest group-directed. While the recalls are tied to an issue, the recall never appears to be more than a test of that interest group’s power. It is the latter group that we are looking at.  By interest group, I am talking about well-known groups (in these cases, labor unions and the NRA).

Partisan Recalls:
What we have seen is that voters have not been turned off by recalls undertaken for purely partisan purposes, especially if the district is right. The California recall wars of 1995 were straightforward political recalls, undertaken to gain or maintain power in the legislature. Two of the three succeeded (though both of the removed officials had voted against their party and helped the Democrats gain control of the legislature).  The California recall of 1914 against E.E. Grant also appears to be a successful partisan recall (albeit warring local factions). On the negative side of the ledger, the recall of California Senator Jeff Denham, which appeared to be undertaken to pick off a Republican seat and gain a two-thirds veto-overriding majority, did not succeed.

To these few, we can add some other high profile recalls. Despite all the hoopla, Gray Davis was arguably a fairly straightforward political recall. And the Michigan Senators who were recalled for tax increases in 1983 (which flipped the chamber from D to R) may also have been considered political (this one is certainly debatable). What we see from this small sample is that voters are not turned off by a nakedly political power grab.

Interest Group Recalls:
On the other hand, voters have rejected what appears to be pure interest group recalls.

Let’s look at the two best examples. This first, in 1913, was against California Senator James Owens. According to recall historians Fredrick Bird and Frances Ryan, it was launched by labor groups as a "test of the effectiveness of the recall against an unfaithful legislator who fails to live up to preelection promises and platform pledges.” But the Democratic Party backed Owens. As Bird and Ryan note, rather than proving labor’s strength,  "(t)he alignment of forces in the recall campaign was conclusive proof that labor planks in a party platform are not always to be taken too seriously....” Senator Owens managed to fight off the recall by the comfortable margin of 6,749 to 5,177.

The other interest group recall was against California Senate President Pro Tempore and Democratic leader David Roberti. Roberti was a leader in passing a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons in 1989, and was a major supporter of gun control initiatives. This angered anti-gun control forces, which decided to make a test case of Roberti. The Roberti recall drew national attention as a test of the strength of the gun lobby. Roberti easily defeated the recall on April 12, 1994, garnering fifty-nine percent of the vote.

There are plenty of other recalls, especially on the local levels, that could be seen as interest group recalls. But I don’t see any evidence that disputes the general theme that interest group recalls do not seem to succeed.

Why interest groups may be the best villain:
By necessity, interest groups are representing a smaller group of constituents than one of the two major political parties. There are plenty of voters in both parties that dislike a specific interest group, even if they are tied into their own party’s base, and these voters may be especially turned off by the belief that an interest group is flexing its muscle in such a direct manner.

Of course, there are advantages to claiming that the recall is partisan-based. It is more likely to turn out your base (though at the risk of turning out the other side’s base as well). It is also more likely to lead to a campaign donation bonanza (as has been the case in Wisconsin). However, on the whole, a specific, easily defined interest group is probably the best villain for a recall defense.

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