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Shilling cruises past fake Dem in primary

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Sen. Dan Kapanke will face state Rep. Jennifer Shilling in an Aug. 9 recall election. Shilling easily defeated “protest” candidate James Smith in an unusual partisan primary that pitted the Democrat against a Republican and offered some surprises but few clues into the mood of the electorate.

In her sixth term as an Assembly representative from La Crosse, Shilling announced in April that she would challenge Kapanke, one of nine senators facing recall efforts for their response to Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining proposal.

Smith, a former county GOP officer, challenged Shilling as a Democrat as part of a Republican strategy to delay the recall election by a month.

Fake Democrats were defeated in all six Republican-held senate districts. Shilling’s margin of victory — just above 70 percent of the votes — was the highest of all the real Democratic challengers Tuesday night.

Tuesday’s turnouts in the 32nd Senate District counties ranged from 24 to 28 percent,  higher than political scientists had expected. It’s an indication that interest remains high on both sides.

“I think the intensity is still on the anti-Walker side,” said UW-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim. “Then again, it was a Democratic primary and you would expect Democrats to show up.”

Smith said Tuesday he did better than he expected and accomplished what he set out to do. The 25-year-old hospital technician, said he ran because he thinks it should be harder to recall elected officials.

The primary was expected to cost taxpayers of the 32nd District an estimated $117,000 — the same as the August recall.

Shilling was also happy with the results.

“I’m pleased that people did not fall for the tactics of the sham candidates,” she said. “These primaries were a waste of taxpayer money.”

Heim was surprised Smith pulled in nearly 30 percent of the votes.

“I figured most Republicans would ignore this election,” he said. “To the degree they came out they obviously voted for Smith. It’s not quite enough to send a message but enough to catch your attention.”

Political observers were looking to Tuesday’s results less for outcomes — none of the fake Democrats was expected to win — than for clues as to how energized each side remains more than four months after the vote that triggered the recalls.

A high turnout with Democrats winning handily over fake opponents would suggest the union-backed ground game is paying off. A more modest turnout, or strong showing for the fake Democrats, would indicate Republicans are motivated to defend Walker’s agenda.

The problem is knowing what constitutes high turnout in an election with no precedents.

“None of us really know what that turnout looks like,” said Charles Franklin, professor of political science at UW-Madison.

Franklin said February’s nonpartisan Supreme Court primary, which took place before the collective bargaining uproar, might be the best baseline. Turnout in that election ranged from 5.5 to 8 percent in La Crosse, Vernon and Crawford counties based on eligible voter populations.

Tuesday’s higher turnouts reflects the intense interest from both sides of the political spectrum that ignited in the weeks after that sleepy Supreme Court primary.

Franklin was also surprised the fake Democrats got as many votes as they did.

The focus now turns to August’s recall, when Kapanke will be one of six Republicans up for recall.

Three Democratic senators also face recalls. Primaries will be held next week in two of those districts and a recall election in the third.

Democrats would need to gain three seats to have a majority in the Senate and be able to block Walker’s agenda.

“If there’s any chance — which will be a long shot, but it could happen — that Democrats take control, it would stalemate the governor’s plans, at least through 2012,” Franklin said. “Likewise for the GOP if they can hold off Democrat gains, that would be a dramatic ratification of the governor’s initiatives this spring and leave them in an even more powerful position.

“It’s high stakes for both parties.”


Primary votes by county

32nd Senate Recall election Democratic primary votes by county (unofficial totals)

County Shilling Smith
La Crosse 17,686 (70.1) 7,334 (29.3)
Vernon 4,247 (68) 2,001 (32)
Crawford 2,346 (73.4) 849 (26.6)
Monroe 711 (65.3) 377 (34.7)
Richland 348 (77.2) 103 (22.8)
Totals 25,338 (70.4) 10,664 (29.6)

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