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In Wisconsin’s Bars, Coffee Shops and Bowling Alleys, Little Mention of Recalls

Voters in Wisconsin are headed to the polls Tuesday for the second time in a week as part of another spate of recall elections. These three are for state Senate seats held by Democrats. And on Aug. 9, there will be yet another set that will ultimately determine the shape of the Wisconsin Legislature, at least until next year when another set of politicians including the governor will be eligible for recall.

Boy, people in Wisconsin must love recalls, right? Well, not really. Driving around the state and talking to people show an electorate that is at once engaged and ambivalent, depending on where you are.

Over the last weekend, Patchwork Nation visited three very different communities – and three different county types in Patchwork Nation’s breakdown – and found three very different sets of attitudes.

The recalls themselves are pretty hard to ignore if you live in one of the districts. Sitting through an hour of game shows Friday night in a bar in Waushara County (“Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”), there were eight advertisements for and against various candidates. But that doesn’t mean people are eager to discuss the fights. The ads sparked no conversation. They were ignored.

In fact, depending on what town you are sitting in, the recall battles seem to be about very different things. The conversation outside the state may be framing the votes as a proxy vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda, but inside Wisconsin a different set of issues are involved.

This week Patchwork Nation looks at three recall fights in the state. First up, the 14th District and Waushara County.

A County Ripe for Change?

At the heart of the dispute Democrats have with Walker is the governor’s plan to limit many of the collective-bargaining rights of public workers. That being the case, Waushara, a small-town Service Worker Center county, has every right to be unhappy. The three biggest employers in the county and five of the top 10 are county, city or state entities – schools, a prison and the county itself.

Patchwork Nation has noted in other reporting the large percentage of the workforces in those Service Worker counties that are employed in the public sector. Those counties are in red on the map below.

And yet, when you ask people about the race there between state Sen. Luther Olsen and challenger Fred Clark, they say there has been little talk of it. There are signs around the area – more for Olsen, who won his seat unopposed in 2008, but some for Clark as well.

Even as a political discussion broke out at Dogger’s bowling alley in Wautoma on Friday night, there was little said about the recall. Kurt Schoenberger, a local business owner who considers himself a solid Republican, said he is no fan of Olsen, but said he thought the recalls were a waste of time and money. Olsen won, he reasoned, and unless he did something illegal, he shouldn’t face recall.

That was a common sentiment in and around Wautoma. Why spend the money to hold these elections now? It’s all so un-Wisconsin-like, or at least that is the sentiment around the area.

Underground Discussion

Of course, not everyone feels that way. The 14th District and Waushara are fairly moderate in their voting proclivities – Obama took just over 50 percent of the vote here in 2008 – and the concern some have is that Walker and Olsen have forgotten that.

Nancy Schanke, a retired occupational therapist who lives in the district, says her opinion of Olsen has changed. She did not vote for him in 2008, but was convinced he was someone who could represent the district well until the vote on Walker’s plan.

“He went from being a moderate Republican to being something else,” she said. “He talked about being different from the incoming freshmen. But that’s changed.”

Her husband, Pete Gasper, says the same thing. “For many here, it’s been the way Walker has gone about what he’s done. And the reason no one talks about it or beyond ‘why are we having the recall’ is you can’t without starting an argument. The conversation has moved underground.”

Why underground? Waushara and the area that makes up the 14th is full of small towns where keeping the peace is placed at a premium. As Lyle Buettner, owner of the area’s Mt. Morris Mill Coffee Shop says, “We discourage any talk of religion or politics in the shop.”

So what’s going to happen here? Clark won 15,000 votes in the July 12 Democratic primary in the district. That’s 15,000 more than any Democrat took in 2008 when Olsen won. And, as Schanke notes, that fact that there are any signs for Clark in the area is actually a victory for him, as well as a sign of some disgruntlement.

But is it enough to actually wrest the seat from Olsen was has won his seat twice with no opposition? That would be shocker to many here. Olsen got 54,000 votes in 2008 – though that was in a presidential year. But both Schanke and Gasper (Democrats) and Schoenberger (a Republican) say they expect the Aug. 9 vote to be close, with turnout at a premium.

If they are right, that in itself would mark a change in this Service Worker Center – and one that Republicans might want to take note of as 2012 approaches. The Service Worker Centers will likely be critical in next year’s presidential race.

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