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Taking Wisconsin’s Temperature as the Recalls Go On

Ah, summer in Wisconsin. Brats on the grill, time at the lake — and recall elections.

The Badger State’s recall-palooza got underway this week on Tuesday with six Democratic primaries that selected the candidates that will challenge six incumbent Republican state senators for their seats in August.

That’s just the beginning. All told there will be 17 recall elections this summer in Wisconsin – that’s primaries plus general recalls – an unheard of number in the state’s history. And Tuesday’s results and other numbers suggest there may be changes afoot in the state’s political make-up.

Tuesday’s Democratic primaries were needed because Republicans fielded candidates to run in them. Those so-called “fake candidates” were entered in the race to buy time for Republican incumbents that were being challenged. The primaries mean there needs to be a round of general recalls, now set for Aug. 9.

Still, while those primaries did slow the process, the Democrats who were running all won by double digits – meaning the Democratic vote turned out as the next wave of votes gets set for next week.

A Patchwork Nation Reading

Of course, turnout is a relative term in a recall election – particularly one in July. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported turnout numbers in the range of 16 to 25 percent of eligible voters in the six state senate districts. Not exactly stellar, but not awful for an unscheduled election in July.

And the results were big wins for the Democrats – most of the victory margins were in the 30 to 40 percent range. And remember their opponents were Republicans, meaning GOP voters could have tried to turnout and nip the recalls in the bud. Wisconsin has an open primary system so any registered voter can vote in either party’s primary.

Not every state senate district or county is represented in the recalls, of course. But as we noted back in April during the state’s special state Supreme Court election, the Democratic party seemed to pick up votes especially from a few county types in Patchwork Nation – the small town Service Worker Centers, the aging Emptying Nests and the formerly growing Boom Towns.

Large percentages of the workforces in those places – particularly the Emptying Nests and Service Worker Centers – are in the public sector. And they may have been expressing their dissatisfaction with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who made a point of going after the bargaining rights of public sector workers in order to save the state money.

Those attitudes seem to be confirmed in the Tuesday results. The senate districts with the most voters from those types of county went the heaviest for the “real” Democratic candidates on Tuesday. The state’s 14th, 18th and 32nd senate districts – made up primarily of those county types – all went for the Democratic candidates by more than 34 percent.

If Democrats take back just three seats in the Wisconsin (and hold on to their own in another spate of recalls), they will win control of the state senate and could put the brakes on much of Walker’s agenda. And as recall season reaches its apex in the state there are new polls showing Walker’s job performance ratings hitting lows, including one showing his approval at 37 percent.

Beyond Wisconsin

But, as we have noted, the larger story out of Wisconsin may be about small-town voters and their feelings about the GOP.

And as we’ve written in other more in-depth reporting, the Emptying Nests and Service Worker Center counties are often conservative in their viewpoints, but people there are also less-wealthy and live closer to the margins than others. And while people in these areas tend to vote Republican, they are not as solidly Republican as the religious, cultural conservatives that live in places like the Evangelical Epicenters.

Candidate Barack Obama did much better in them in 2008 than previous Democratic candidates as the economy sputtered. But they swung back solidly Republican in 2010 as voters were unhappy with the continuing hard times.

Now, the next few weeks in Wisconsin could tell give us some clues about the electoral terrain for 2012. There is another round of recall elections next Tuesday, July 19, before the Aug. 9 general recalls.

Patchwork Nation is headed to Wisconsin this weekend to visit a three key recall counties there (Waushara, Fond du Lac and Milwaukee) and take the their temperature as the state and the country try to determine their political directions.

Dante Chinni is the director of Patchwork Nation.

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