If you're a Republican, it's a scenario straight out of “Alice in Wonderland.” Fourteen Wisconsin state senators, all Democrats, flee the state for three weeks, bringing government to a halt in an effort to stop Gov. Scott Walker's budget bill. After three weeks, the fugitive Democrats return in failure. And then, when a rich and highly organized effort to punish lawmakers is launched, it's directed not at the Democrats who ran away but at the Republicans who stayed home and did their job.
That is precisely what is now happening in Wisconsin. Local and national labor organizations, enraged by the successful Republican effort to limit the collective bargaining powers of public employees unions, are pouring money and manpower into petitions to recall GOP state senators. At the same time, Republican drives to recall runaway Democrats, while rich in volunteer spirit, are working with far less money and organized support.
On the Democratic side are the AFL-CIO, the big public worker unions, party organizations and activist groups like MoveOn.org, which have already raised millions of dollars online. On the Republican side are a few Tea Party groups, taxpayer organizations and not a lot more.
“They're off to a quicker start,” Wisconsin Republican Party executive director Mark Jefferson says. “We have some structural disadvantages because taxpayer groups and volunteer organizations are more loosely put together than a union syndicate.”
Officially, there are eight Republicans and eight Democrats facing recall petitions. But it appears the most serious challenges involve three on each side. Democrats are working hard to knock off Republican senators Dan Kapanke, Alberta Darling and Randy Hopper. Republicans are targeting Democratic senators Robert Wirch, Jim Holperin and Dave Hansen.
Wisconsin law requires recall petitioners to gather thousands of signatures before an actual election is held. The specific number, based on voting in the most recent elections, is different for each district but ranges from about 15,000 to 22,000.
That's where the organizing strength of the AFL-CIO and its unions come in. Labor and its Democratic allies realize that Wisconsin is a critical battle and are desperate to make sure other states do not follow Wisconsin's lead. Republicans, meanwhile, seem less aware of the stakes.
“If Republicans do not take this very seriously, they could be in trouble here,” says Steve Baas of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which supports Walker's budget reforms.
The imbalance of power might be alarming to national conservatives, but it doesn't seem to worry the troops on the ground trying to recall Democratic senators.
“I think it's a huge advantage for us because we are really, really grass roots,” says Dan Hunt, an out-of-business real estate developer in the Kenosha area who heads Taxpayers to Recall Robert Wirch. While the other side has more money, Hunt says, “We haven't had a problem raising funds. We're fully funded as of now. We're getting national support; it's just national individual support.”
Beyond organization, there is a difference in the two recall efforts. The conservative drive to recall Democratic senators began in outrage over the Democrats' flight from the state. How could lawmakers who took an oath of office do that? The liberal drive to recall Republicans began as an effort to pressure those senators to vote against Walker's budget bill. Now that the bill has passed, it's an effort to make examples of the senators who supported it.
For Hunt, it's about principle.
“I'm doing it because my senator didn't represent me in Madison,” Hunt says. “He left, and I think that is the worst thing that can happen in a legislative democracy. People who choose to leave their post on purpose, just to avoid a vote on a bill — that's an egregious act that requires citizen reaction.”
Both sides have several more weeks to gather signatures. After that, there is a period for legal challenges of the petitions and then another period before the actual recall election, which could come in mid-to-late summer. Will the intensity of union activists last until then? And just as important, will the intensity of ordinary citizens, the people who are volunteering for Hunt's group and others like it, stay alive as well?
Unions are very good at things like gathering signatures and chartering buses to take people to the polls. But don't rule out the team that's fighting on principle.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.