Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Walker Recall: What to Expect When You're Expecting a Recall -- Dairy State Demolition Derby Edition

With the news that Scott Walker is not going to challenge the signatures, the gubernatorial recall is going forward. The Wisconsin GAB is set to rule today on  all six recalls -- against the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and four Republican state Senators -- have qualified for the ballot. From numerous press reports, and from the past history with signature verification, the recalls are very likely to be approved. The only recall that is in any doubt is against the Majority Leader of the Wisconsin state Senate, Scott Fitzgerald. 

This would represent the second year in a row that we are staring at an unprecedented use of the recall. This recall could have an effect well beyond Wisconsin. There are potential dangers for both sides

Let's look at some of the history and background on the use of the recall:

Gunning for the Governor: A brief history
As has been well documented, the Walker recall would be only the third recall of a US Governor to get on the ballot in US history. The first was in 1921, when North Dakota's Lynn Frazier (Non-Partisan League) was ousted. The second was against California Governor Gray Davis (Democrat) in 2003. Additionally, a recall was approved against Arizona Governor Evan Meacham (Republican) in 1988, but Meacham was impeached and removed by the legislature on the day the signatures were verified.

Despite the fact that gubernatorial recalls rarely get on the ballot, there have been tons of attempts to recall Governors. Before Davis got on the ballot, there were 31 recall attempts against a California Governor (we are now up to 45 attempts). And in the last few years, recalls have been started against Governors in Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona and Louisiana. None have gone anywhere.

Where does the Walker signature campaign stack up to past efforts? The recall proponents gathered 1 million signatures in 60 days. In the Davis recall, proponents gathered 1,660,245 in 160 days (in a vastly larger state). Also as a comparison, the failure rate in the Davis recall was 18% which is pretty much par for the course.

2nd in Commands:
Rebecca Kleefisch is the first Lieutenant Governor in the nation to face a recall vote. It appears she will be only the third non-governor to face a recall vote on the state level (the other two were both in North Dakota in 1921).

There has been much discussion about the law of recalling a LG -- some argued that the LG would be automatically included in a recall of the Governor. The Democrats did not play around with lawsuits, and instead got the signatures.

Not Just Another State: Dairy Demolition Derby

From 1908 (when Oregon became the first state to adopt the recall for state level officials) to 2010, there were 21 state legislative recall elections in the entire country. Last year, there were 11, with nine of them taking place in Wisconsin. 

Previously, the maximum recalls in one legislative session were three in California in 1995. Michigan in 1983 (taxes) and Idaho in 1971 (pay raise) both had two at once.

Flipping the Legislature

If just one of the Republican state Senators lose their seat, the party will flip from Republican to Democrat. Based on past history, should we expect voters to shy away from switching party control of the Senate? Nope! There have been four recalls (four or five if you want to count California in 1995 multiple times, which we won't) that could have switched the legislature (Washington 1981, Michigan 1983, California 1995, Wisconsin 1996). All  but the one in Washington succeeded.

You have selected Regicide
If the Fitzgerald recall qualifies, he will be the fourth state legislative leader to face a recall. The first was California President Pro Tempore David Roberti in 1994. The second was Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon in 2008. Both of men triumphed. See the details here.

The third was Arizona Majority Leader Russell Pearce, who was kicked out of office on November 8 in a bitter recall battle. Perhaps worth noting is that Pearce lost to a Republican (Arizona does not have a primary, and the recall is just an all-in affair).

There was one other recall of a legislative leader, though the circumstances were so bizarre that it has to be separated out. Without going into too much details about the California recall wars of 1995, Republican Doris Allen backed the Democrats in a closely divided Assembly that had already seen two recall votes. Allen was elected Speaker of the Assembly and served for a little over 3 months, but she stepped down before her recall. She lost her recall race.

Winning isn't the only thing, it's everything

As a general rule, recalls are very successful. There's no hard and fast numbers, but most politicians seeking reelection win -- it may be at a 75-85% clip. Obviously, that is a self-selecting group of people who are popular enough to run for reelection, but it is still a powerful statistic. Recalls turn that number on its head. Last year, there were 151 recalls in the country -- 85 resulted in the removal. Both Governors who faced recalls, in addition to the North Dakota AG and Agriculture Commissioner were removed.

Among the 32 state legislative recalls, 17 were successful. However, that statistic may provide some comfort to Republicans. Last year, 7 of the 9 Wisconsin recalls failed. 

Recall Explosion

As others have stated, the last few years has seen a recall boomlet -- as mentioned above, last year, there were 151 recalls. Most credit/blame the recession, but recall use has probably been growing for at least the last thirty years (Before last year, 14 of the 21 state legislative recalls have been since 1981). I cite technological changes as a major driver in the recalls growth.

Ain’t Misbehaving:

Despite the widespread belief that the recall is only suppose to be used for criminal conduct and malfeseance, only four of the state legislative recalls could claim to be based on conduct. The rest were on policy votes and politics.

Recall Defenses: 
Do voters care if the recall is perceived to be instigated by a political party or by an interest group? Check here for some thought.

Campaign finance
Wisconsin has an unusual campaign finance law for the recall – no limit on donations. Wisconsin isn't the only state to have a very different campaign finance law for recalls, as Washington State and Arizona shows. The result may be the most expensive race in the country, with analysts suggesting a $100 million price tag.

Last year's state legislative recalls resulted in the most expensive legislative races in Wisconsin history -- $44 million was spent on those 9 races. By comparison, $20 million was dropped on all the Wisconsin legislative race in 2010, and $37.4 million on the Governor's races. Not a surprise -- in 1981, the recall of Washington State state Senator was found to be the most expensive state legislative election in that state's history.
Anyone with any sense has already left town? 

No Roger, No Rerun, No Recall?

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2010, is considering running in the recall against Governor Scott Walker. Most recalls are not reruns. Of the 32 state legislative recalls, only two were rematches.That being said, just last week the Sheboygan mayoral recall featured a rematch.

The Buyin' Power of the Proletariat's Gone Done

Rather than unify around one candidate, it looks likely that there will be a big battle for the Gubernatorial nomination. The unions, who can be credited with getting the recalls on the ballot, seem to be backing Kathleen Falk. Will they prove their strength in a primary? 

The Primary could be a real factor in this election, as some of the candidates running may not face primaries. So, we could end up with two elections dates. How will that affect election? 

Will there be lawyers?
You better believe there will be lawyers.

And finally, some consolation for the electoral losers. North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier was the first Governor to be recalled back in 1921. He was elected to the first of the three US Senate terms 18 months later.


  1. It's not quite accurate that Democrats only need to win one Senate seat to win control of the chamber. Currently, two Democratic Senators are running against each other to be the City Treasurer of Milwaukee. The election for that is in April, and whoever wins will be seated in late April and will have to resign from the Senate. This will put the balance of the Senate at 17-15, so Democrats will need to win two seats to take over the chamber after the recalls.

    The choice of whether and when to call a special election rests with the Governor, who will almost certainly still be Scott Walker at that point. Sen. Spencer Coggs' seat is up for election in November, so he wouldn't call for a special election to fill it. Sen. Tim Carpenter's seat isn't up until 2014, so he would call a special election to fill that seat, but it would almost certainly coincide with the general election. Both seats are overwhelmingly Democratic, so Democrats will not lose a seat no matter who wins the Treasurer's race.

    Where things get interesting is if the Democrats win exactly one seat in the recall election, but go on to lose exactly one seat in the general election. In the event that happens, whether Sen. Carpenter or Coggs wins the Treasurer's race becomes extremely important. Under this scenario, after the recall, the Senate would be tied at 16-16. As mentioned earlier, Sen. Coggs seat is up in the November election, so his successor wouldn't be seated until the next session in January, along with the rest of the class of Senators elected in 2012. This means that 17th senator the Democrats need for a majority won't be seated until after one of the sixteen leaves office, so the Democrats would never have 17 senators seated all at the same time.

    However, if Sen. Carpenter wins the Treasurer's race, the election to succeed him would be a special election, so his successor would be seated as soon as the election is certified in November. This would give the Democrats a narrow window of control of the Senate for a lame duck session in December. In practical terms, this wouldn't matter much, because the Assembly would still be in Republican hands regardless of the outcome of the 2012 elections. But a new Governor elected in the recall would have a small window in which she could confirm nominees without having to obtain the consent of Republicans in the Senate.

  2. Thanks -- great, informative comment.