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An election that isn’t about the candidates, primary signals strange times

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James Smith thinks Wisconsin law makes it too easy to recall a sitting legislator. And he’s willing to spend taxpayer dollars to protest it.

Smith, a self-described libertarian Republican and former officer of the La Crosse County GOP, will be on the ballot Tuesday alongside Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling in a bid to challenge Sen. Dan Kapanke. He is one of six fake Democrats across the state running as part of a GOP strategy to delay recalls until August.

County clerks estimate the partisan primary will cost taxpayers in the 32nd Senate district about $117,000, the same as the Aug. 9 recall election.

Smith hopes his candidacy draws attention to Wisconsin’s laws.

“If by me doing this they change the recall laws … that will save millions of dollars for the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “Yes, it’s costly, but in the long run it will cost a lot less.”

Smith, a 25-year-old hospital technician, says the number of signatures to trigger a recall should equal the number of votes the office holder received in the last election. Current law requires one quarter of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

“The whole reason I’m doing this — the bar is too low,” Smith said. “It could very well be that we’re recalling people all the time now.”

Wisconsin’s recall laws are among the most restrictive in the nation, said Joshua Spivak, who studies recall elections and writes about them on The Recall Election blog. The number of required signatures is relatively high, Spivak said, while the 60-day window to gather them is shorter than most.

“Wisconsin has a relatively high voter requirement,” he said. “It’s interesting that that’s the state that’s taking off.”

Kapanke is one of nine state senators — six Republicans and three Democrats — who face recall elections for their responses to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to eliminate most collective bargaining for public workers. The bill sparked weeks of protests at the Capitol this spring, and Democratic senators fled to Illinois in an attempt to stall it.

When recall organizers turned in petitions on April 1 bearing more than 23,000 signatures — of which 21,868 were deemed valid — it was just the fifth time in Wisconsin’s history that triggering a recall had been successful.

Of the four previous recalls, only two resulted in someone losing office: Sen. Gary George of Milwaukee, who later went to prison for taking kickbacks, was unseated in 2003 by fellow Democrat Spencer Coggs; and Sen. George Petak, R-Racine, was defeated in 1996 after he cast the deciding vote for a regional sales tax to pay for the Milwaukee Brewers’ new stadium.

Kapanke’s campaign has called the recall “an inappropriate and expensive abuse of the political process.”

Spivak says that’s a common defense from recall targets across the country.

“Everyone who’s facing a recall claims it’s being misused and it should be about misconduct,” he said. “That’s clearly not the case. If you look at the history, that’s not why it was adopted.”

Of the 19 states that allow recalls, only eight list specific grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wisconsin is not among them.

Uncharted territory

While he casts himself as a protest candidate, Smith says if he wins Tuesday’s primary he will stay on the ballot and challenge Kapanke, though he thinks Kapanke is doing a good job.

Smith said his campaigning has been mostly “word of mouth.”

He said the only help he received from the state GOP was a June 3 letter from the party’s Third Congressional District chairman urging party members to support his candidacy.

Shilling, a five-term member of the state Assembly, has framed her campaign as a referendum on the governor’s agenda and Kapanke’s support for it. She isn’t campaigning against Smith, but she has been explaining the need for voters to show up at the polls on Tuesday.

“We certainly don’t want our supporters to sleep through the primary,” she said. “We’re taking nothing for granted.“

University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin says Smith’s presence on the ballot will serve mostly to buy each candidate more time to campaign.

But there are so few instances of spoiler candidates running openly that it’s difficult to predict the outcome of such a primary. Much less an election in the middle of the summer.

“We can speculate,” he said. “But that’s all it is — speculation.”

With only one party primary being contested, it’s possible that Republicans could cross over and try to bump Shilling from the ticket, but Franklin says that’s unlikely.

“It requires a lot of strategic communication to Republican voters about what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “To try to communicate that to voters in a serious way would be a serious proposition when you want to be spending money to support a real candidate.”

Spivak, a Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, notes that recalls have become an increasingly popular tactic in recent decades — for both major parties.

In the 103 years since the first statewide recall was introduced, Spivak said, there were just 20 such efforts. So far this year there have been 10 — nine of them in Wisconsin.

“That’s how big this is,” Spivak said.

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County clerks in Wisconsin’s 32nd Senate district estimate Tuesday’s primary election will cost local taxpayers about $117,000.

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