Wednesday morning, just hours after state Republicans learned they had retained control of the state Senate by defeating four of the six Democratic challengers in the state’s historic recall elections, a flurry of activity began in the two remaining Senate districts up for grabs on Tuesday, Aug. 16, the fourth and final recall election day.
The seats, held by Democratic incumbents Jim Holperin of Conover and Robert Wirch of Pleasant Prairie, are the last of the nine recall elections initiated by voters since the state and Senate became divided over Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip most collective bargaining rights from public workers.
Now, discontent over the fact that Holperin and Wirch joined their Democratic Senate colleagues in fleeing to Illinois in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to block a vote on the collective bargaining bill may lead to a big first for tea party supporters in Wisconsin.
Sure, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, displays what has become a favorite symbol of the tea party movement, the yellow "Don't tread on me" flag on his Capitol office door.
Many other lawmakers are tea party sympathizers, with Republican Gov. Scott Walker even speaking at tea party events while campaigning last year.
But Tea Party Patriots are looking for someone from the outside who has organized state residents around the movement. Kim Simac, the founder of the Northwoods Patriots, fits the bill. And she is challenging Holperin Tuesday for his Senate seat.
Holperin acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that he is more vulnerable than Wirch.
“It has been on our minds and in our plans for two years now to have someone from the tea party movement in the state Senate,” says Tim Dake, chair of Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, a Tea Party Patriots organization. “If she wins, it is going to be huge.”
To that end, Dake and a Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty colleague created a political action committee called Taxypayers Hoping for Change to spend money on ads in the two Democratic Senate district recall races.
The group registered Aug. 3 with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, just two weeks shy of Tuesday’s showdown between Holperin and Simac, and Wirch and his Republican challenger, attorney Jonathan Steitz.
Dake says four radio ads began airing in Holperin’s district and two radio ads plus a cable television ad began airing in Wirch’s district Wednesday. The ads will run through Tuesday’s election.
The tea party movement did win seats in the state Assembly last November. But gaining its first seat in the Senate would be a big step.
“We feel we need to get more involved in government,” Dake says. “We see some of the things we want to get done, getting done. But we need more voices inside the Capitol. A win by Kim Simac would give us that.”
According to the website of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group monitoring campaign spending, Americans for Prosperity, Jobs First Coalition and the State Government Leadership Foundation are all Republican-leaning issue ad groups running ads in Holperin’s district.
The Greater Wisconsin Committee, a pro-labor, pro-Democratic organization based in Madison, also has been running ads in Holperin’s 12th Senate District.
Because these organizations are “issue ad” groups, they do not have to report their spending to the state. A staffer with the watchdog group said Wednesday that the group was not aware of any ads being run in Wirch’s Senate District 22.
In addition to the new ads hitting radio and TV audiences Wednesday, Simac launched a six-day, 2,000-mile tour of the district that will take her through each of the 11 counties in Senate District 12.
“Our goal all along has been to meet as many people face to face as possible. The voters are the most important in this election,” Simac says on her campaign website. “It was the people in the 12th Senate District who were left without representation when Jim Holperin fled the state. I intend to go to every house I can to tell them personally I won’t abandon them when the times get tough.”
Simac will be driving around the 12th District in her green GMC truck with a campaign sign rigged to the back.
Holperin, whose district voted for Walker, says he will continue campaigning as well. This is the senator’s second time facing a recall effort. The first attempt came in 1990, when he was a member of the Assembly, over his support of Ojibwe spearfishing rights. He handily won that recall election. He was elected to the Senate in 2008.
Like Holperin’s district, a majority of voters in Wirch’s district also voted for Walker in the November election. But Wirch says his district voted for JoAnne Kloppenburg in the state Supreme Court race rather than incumbent Justice David Prosser, a former Republican state Assembly member. Wirch describes his district as “Democratic-leaning, but not by much.”
Dake is pinning his hopes on Senate District 12. “My gut feeling is that Kim has a better chance of winning (than Jonathan Steitz),” he says. “That’s strictly a gut feeling, but I think she has a message that resonates with her neighbors.”