Wisconsin Unions Spend Tens of Millions, Fail to Flip State Senate

Published August 10, 2011

Government workers in Wisconsin may be wondering whether their effort to recall six state senators from office was worth the price.

The government unions directly spent more than $15 million in trying to recall six Republican senators as payback for their role in reducing collective bargain powers and the ability of unions to forcibly collect dues. The reforms supported by the senators also made most state government workers pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits.

At least another $15 million from unregistered groups that do not have to provide detailed reporting came from outside groups, most of it in support of the unions’ recall effort.

The targeted senators in the Aug. 9 recall election were Republicans who went along with Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining and benefits reforms, which took effect early this year. If Democrats had picked up three of the six seats under recall, they could have retaken the state senate and blocked Walker’s future moves.

The victorious Republicans were Sens. Alberta Darling of River Hills, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Luther Olsen of Ripon and Rob Cowles of Allouez. Republican Sens. Dan Kapanke of LaCrosse and Randy Hopper of Empire lost to Democratic Rep. Jennifer Shilling of LaCrosse and Jessica King of Oshkosh, respctively. 

‘National Implications’

“This recall had national implications. That’s why outside unions dumped so much money in here,” Sen. Olsen said. “They wanted to crush us, so anyone who wanted to do what we did would wake up in a cold sweat. At end of the day, people asked us to balance the budget, not raise taxes, and get our fiscal house in order. We thought we’d find out next year what people thought of how we did. We found out today if you do what people want you to do, they’ll be with you.”

He also said “the unions overplayed their hand” by pouring so much outside money into the state to try to influence voters.

“They ticked people off. We had to put up with a flood of radio ads, TV ads, mail, phone calls,” he said.

Better State Economy

“I think if voters get the facts, if they cut through all the campaign ads and attacks and everything else, in the end voters want results,” Walker told the Wisconsin-based John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. “More and more, as voters looked at the facts, they saw that the budget is balanced, we did it without raising taxes – in fact we essentially froze property taxes for the next couple of years – and we’ve done it in a way that empowers our local governments and school districts to fare better.”

He also said many state residents realize Wisconsin has improved economically compared to other neighboring states, including Illinois, which this year has sharply raised taxes, increased spending, and lost jobs.

Wisconsin this year has held the line on taxes and spending and has seen employment climb – including a net gain of 9,500 jobs in June alone. Wisconsin’s job gains over the last six months are double the national average.

Walker suggested citizens feared a return to Democratic power could reverse the reforms and the state’s improving economic performance.

Onslaught Overcome

Wisconsin resident and Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Maureen Martin had a ringside seat from her home near the state capitol. She said the state government’s handling of the budget under a new Republican governor and lawmakers, and the improving economic performance of the state, were big factors in the Republicans retaining the state senate despite an onslaught of negative advertising from the unions and their backers.

“GOP lawmakers have passed Gov. Walker’s balanced budget eliminating a $3 billion deficit without raising taxes. Private employers in the state have created 39,300 new jobs in that time period. In June alone, private employers in the state created 9,500 new jobs, accounting for more than half of all the jobs created in the entire United States,” she said.

Martin said the unions and their allies flooded the state with campaign ads that accused Republicans “of class warfare, of depriving the elderly of Social Security and the poor of health care, and schoolchildren everywhere of a quality education. These accusations didn’t fly because they are false and Wisconsin voters know better.”

The Wisconsin Education Association Council issued a statement that read, “Wisconsin voters on Tuesday tossed two Republican state senators out of office in recall elections, sending a message that they won’t tolerate the politics of extremism. Although the recall elections fell short of the goal of turning over control of the State Senate, we’re not done yet – and we’re not going away.”

‘Nothing’ Accomplished

MacIver Institute President Brett Healy said, “Big labor spent $15 million on the ground game and millions more on campaign ads. Big Labor threw its best punch and Gov. Walker is still standing. Your rank-and-file union member has to be scratching his head today, wondering if it was worth it handing over all of his hard-earned money so the union bosses could run political ads that accomplished nothing.”

Mike Buelow, research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-partisan group that works for open and honest elections and government, said his organization estimates the total amount of spending on the campaigns will easily exceed $36 million, a huge amount by Wisconsin standards. The candidates spent approximately $5.4 million, with the rest of the money coming from other groups.

“Last fall in the regular 2010 legislative elections, there were 116 races — 99 in the Assembly and 17 in the Senate. Altogether, spending came to $17.5 million,” Buelow said. “In 2008 there were 115 races and the tally came to $20 million. That was the record.

“We haven’t seen money like this ever. People were definitely energized by what happened after the 2010 elections. Both sides saw a need to make a stand to show other places how things might go.”

He said if the results have a message, it could be simply, “It’s hard to beat an incumbent.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.