MADISON — Republicans and Democrats are deeply entrenched in a high-stakes game over control of the state Senate this summer, exposing an underbelly of politics typically hidden behind smiling politicians and cheery campaign slogans.

Political experts say the Republican Party appears to be particularly vulnerable, and not just because six GOP senators face recalls this summer, compared with just three Democrats.

That could explain Republicans’ open acknowledgement this week that they are seeking spoiler candidates to force Democratic challengers to face primary elections, thereby giving Republicans more time between the end of the legislative session and Election Day to campaign.

“It’s not what you would do if you feel very comfortable,” said Josh Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York who has studied recall elections around the country. “If you had a solid lead, you wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s delay things.’ You’d want to go out and have the election tomorrow.”

Individual campaigns have denied any prior knowledge of the search for spoiler candidates.

“We weren’t involved in that at all,” said Jen Harrington, campaign manager for state Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse. “We weren’t involved in candidate recruitment.”

GOP leadership, however, isn’t denying searching for spoiler candidates.

La Crosse County Republican Party executive committee member James Smith resigned his position this week to run as a spoiler against Jennifer Shilling in the Kapanke recall election. Smith said he talked  with party leaders before making his decision.

Stephan Thompson, the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s new executive director, said Democratic challengers have an unfair advantage, because they can be out on the campaign trail while the incumbents remain at the Capitol, writing and voting on the biennial budget.

“Because of this disadvantage, and the outrageous nature of elected officials facing recall for standing up for a balanced budget, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has advocated that protest candidates run in Democratic primaries to ensure that Republican legislators have ample time to communicate with voters throughout their districts after the state budget is approved,” Thompson said in a statement.

The open acknowledgment of the spoiler strategy surprised University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin.

“It’s certainly unusual for a party not only to do it but to also defend it as ... a normal political maneuver,” Franklin said. “And I think that reflects just how high the stakes are in the recalls, that we’re seeing political tactics that are that unusual being used routinely.”

State Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, condemned the GOP, calling on the party to “immediately shut down this partisan, coordinated attack on democracy that wastes taxpayer dollars.”

Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the state Senate. Coupled with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a GOP majority in the Assembly, Republicans have advanced widespread changes to collective bargaining powers for public employees, voter ID legislation, permits to allow residents to carry concealed weapons and several tax breaks for businesses.

“If Democrats pick up three or more seats, that puts an end to the Republican agenda and Walker’s agenda at least through the 2012 general election,” Franklin said.

On the other hand, Franklin said, even if the GOP loses a seat or two, if Republicans maintain the majority in the Senate, it’ll be seen as a validation of the conservative agenda.

Lawmakers also are scheduled to draw new congressional district boundaries this year, as they do every 10 years using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. With Democrats in the minority in both chambers, Republicans could have an unfettered ability to redistrict in a way that protects GOP candidates for the next decade.

While it’s not a given that Democrats will regain a majority in the Senate, it’s far from an impossibility, either.

Experts agree that Kapanke and Sen. Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac, are extremely vulnerable, due largely to their constituencies, strong Democratic opponents and, for Hopper, personal scandals.

“I would say that (Hopper) and Kapanke are goners,” said Dennis Dresang, director of the Center on State, Local and Tribal Governance at the UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs.

If Kapanke and Hopper lose, Democrats would need to hold on to their own seats while ousting one of four remaining Republican senators facing recall to gain control of the Senate.

Like some Republicans, Democrats are at risk because their districts include large numbers of supporters from both parties, notably Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, Dresang said.

But Dresang said Democratic supporters could be motivated to vote, due to the Walker-led push to all but eliminate collective bargaining for most of the state’s public union employees — the issue that prompted the recalls in the first place.

And voter turnout, Spivak, Franklin and Dresang agree, will decide the outcome of the recalls, scheduled for July 12 for GOP senators and July 19 for Democratic senators.

If primaries are necessary, the recall elections will be delayed until August.

Spivak said that delay could suppress turnout, because it would be more difficult for political parties to convince voters, particularly mid-summer, to get to the polls not once, but twice.

And that, in turn, could help the GOP counteract any lead in voter enthusiasm Democrats have, he said. “In this case (backing spoiler candidates to force primaries) seems to be a pretty blatant political move,” Spivak said. “But the recall is a pretty blatant political move, so maybe that makes sense. They are trying to gum up the works.”

On Friday, We Are Wisconsin, a consortium of progressive groups and unions, called on Democrats to field spoiler candidates of their own to prevent Republicans from affecting the electoral calendar without any Democratic involvement.

“This is the most cynical manipulation of the Wisconsin electoral process in our state’s history, and is being done by a Republican Party that has demonstrated no respect for the rule of law and our state’s tradition of clean elections and good governance,” said We Are Wisconsin Communications Director Kelly Steele in a statement. “Unfortunately, however, after evaluating the strategic implications of their despicable tactics, to simply standby would amount to unilateral disarmament and would almost certainly thwart the will of the hundreds of thousands of voters who support recalling Republican senators in the upcoming elections.”

Neither political party immediately responded to requests for comment on We Are Wisconsin’s suggestion.

But Dresang said Democrats will want to capitalize on mobilized voters who are angry over the collective bargaining changes and the state budget lawmakers will consider next week.

“I think that if you’re a strategist for the Democratic Party, you probably want to have the elections happen sooner rather than later,” he said.

Still in question is whether the elections will be held at all. Lawyers for the six Republican senators have filed legal complaints aimed at stopping the GOP recalls. A date for hearings on those complaints has not been set in Dane County Circuit Court.

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