Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No Reruns? Why recalls are rarely a rematch of the last election

In the Wisconsin recall fight, so far only one candidate (Sheldon Wasserman) who lost against one of the threatened Senators in the 2010 election has announced a possible interest in running again in what would be a recall rematch. It could be that other “boys who didn’t win,” especially the people who lost in a close race (Wasserman, who formerly held the seat, lost by 1,000 votes) will jump in once a recall is officially underway.

But it wouldn't be surprising if the losers shy away from the race. Recalls are surprisingly rarely a rematch. Of the 20 state legislative recalls, I only know of one, the 1914 recall of Edwin E. Grant of California (see below for the details of that race), that was a rerun.

It has occurred more often on the local level. But it is still unusual. The more prominent recalls were not reruns.

That’s not to say that losing candidates don’t think of it all the time. After the bitter 1994 Senate election battle, Michael Huffington allegedly wanted to try and recall Dianne Feinstein. As you can see in this story, it was quite temporary. It could be argued that Richard Riordan’s desire to get into the 2003 recall (which was short-circuited by Schwarzenegger) was a“second bite of the apple” (Riordan lost the Republican primary in an upset in 2002), but that seems a little far fetched.

Why doesn’t the rerun happen more often? It is not that losing candidates are chastised – many losers pull an Adlai Stevenson or Grover Cleveland (who actually won a majority of the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College in 1888) and run in the next election. It is also not because voters don’t want to legitimatize a “naked power grab.” Voters have been willing to endorse a strictly political recall that is run simply to benefit one party.

Let’s hypothesize (and your guess is as good as mine). One reason: the candidate may appear to be a sore loser who is trying to reverse, at the public’s expense, a legitimate election vote against him/her. It can easily be seen as, or more likely turned into by the incumbent’s judicious campaigning, a personal vendetta. On this same front, the opposition research has already been done, and the incumbent already knows the dirt to use.

Another powerful disincentive is that voters may see it as hijacking the voter anger (and the volunteer efforts, if any) of the recall for personal gain. Witness Congressman Darrell Issa, who ponied up the dough that got the Gray Davis recall on the ballot, but abruptly dropped out as more popular candidates came in.

Issa also points out the third possible negative repercussion of having a rematch. It gives the incumbent something to hit. The recall suddenly becomes a straightforward political race – it is no longer just about voter anger or a diffuse electorate. The elected official can present ads against the alternative. That Issa was the face of the recall did not help him. He had started to come under fire before he left the race.

None of these reasons are enough to prevent a good candidate from coming forward in a race. Clich├ęs abound in politics and one that is especially true is that you have to be in it to win it. But the paltry history of recall rematches suggests that there are good reasons for losers to shy away from getting involved in a recall. We’ll see if this holds in Wisconsin.

Here’s the Story of the Grant Recall:
In the 1912 senate election, Progressive Democratic Senator Edwin E. Grant defeated incumbent Eddie Wolfe, one of the leaders of the San Francisco conservatives, by 95 votes. Not long afterwards, recall petitions began to circulate. According to progressive writers and newspapers, the recall was started due to Grant's opposition to "vice conditions" with his sponsoring of the Redlight Abatement Act. This earned him the enmity of the still-potent political machine in San Francisco. The petition circulated against Grant did not cite the Redlight Abatement Act, because, according to Bird and Ryan, "to recall a state senator for having opposed vice conditions did not seem possible even in San Francisco...." Rather it emphasized his votes on three bills, one of which would have prohibited the sale of liquor at the Panama-Pacific Exposition (votes in favor of prohibition could be considered an act of political suicide in "wet" San Francisco). In opposing the recall, Grant's supporters focused on whether the "forces of vice" would regain control, and also cited the cost of the "unnecessary expense" of the recall.

The Grant recall was clouded with controversy. Only on the third attempt, in 1914, was the recall finally able to get on the ballot. The man who declared his candidacy for the seat was former Senator Eddie Wolfe. Progressive reporter Franklin Hichborn claimed "some of those who were circulating petitions against Grant had stated the petition 'was to put Wolfe back in the Senate in place of Grant.'" This aspect of the recall, the reversal of an election verdict, is not discussed in depth in the writings on the Grant election. On October 8, 1914, by a 531 vote margin, Grant was recalled and Wolfe elected in his place. Progressives denounced the vote, but the Los Angeles Times, committed opponent to the progressive cause, rejoiced in Grant's defeat and wrongly predicted problems for the progressives and Governor Hiram Johnson in the upcoming election. Grant protested the election based on irregularities in the petitions, but the senate committee investigating the matter was treated with scorn by progressives. The recall of Grant and other uses of the direct democracy provisions by opponents of the progressives brought down calls for changes in the procedure. However, without specific guidelines on how to prevent these problems, the legislature stumbled to a solution. Eventually, the legislature settled for increasing the penalty for forging a name on a petition.

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