The Wisconsin recall elections that will take place Tuesday provide one of the most remarkable accountability moments in modern American history. After Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies used their control of the state's executive and legislative branches of government to attack labor rights, local democracy, public education and basic services, mass demonstrations erupted across the state -- culminating in an early March protest outside the state Capitol that drew 150,000 people to one of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in American history.
Despite the protests, despite polls that showed broad opposition to the governor's agenda, his legislative allies continued to advance their wrecking-crew agenda.
So the movement that had developed dusted off an old accountability tool developed during the era of populist and progressive reform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the recall. Wisconsin is one of 19 American states that allow citizens to collect signatures on petitions and force sitting officials to face a special election.
In Wisconsin, six of the Republican state senators who voted with Walker face recall elections Tuesday. While the labor and community forces that organized the recall drives had little trouble collecting the tens of thousands of signatures needed to force the election, they faced unprecedented obstacles in getting to this point.
Terrified by the threat to his authority, Walker and his allies tried to thwart the recall drives with procedural, legal and electoral challenges -- going so far as to run "fake" Democratic challengers, all of whom lost to real Democrats in July 12 primaries. Walker allies also launched recall drives against a half-dozen Democratic senators, on the theory that defeating Democrats might offset losses by Republicans. (Only three of the Republican petition drives attracted sufficient support to force recalls of Democrats; one of the targeted Democrats has already been re-elected, while two others face tests Aug. 16.)
With the approach of Tuesday's election, Walker's allies in national movements to privatize public schools, undermine unions and create a pay-to-play politics that favors corporate interests over those of citizens and communities have pumped millions of dollars into local elections with an eye toward defeating the Democratic challenges.
So what is the state of play?
Here is an FAQ that answers key questions:
Q: WHAT IS THE POINT OF THE RECALLS?
A: Democrats have no real ability to check and balance Walker at this point. If Democrats win a total of three seats in the state Senate, they will shift control of the chamber and loosen the governor's iron grip on state government -- a grip that extends to the judicial branch, where Walker's allies have used their narrow control of the state's seven-member Supreme Court to support legally dubious gubernatorial and legislative moves.
The best way to understand the numbers is this: Nine recall elections (six targeting Republicans, three targeting Democrats) are being held this summer. If Democrats win a combination of those elections, they get control of the Senate. One Democrat (Dave Hansen of Green Bay) won his July 12 election outright. At least three Democrats must win Tuesday to shift Senate control. And the two Democratic incumbents facing recall votes on Aug. 16 must win.
Q: IS THAT POSSIBLE?
A: Yes. Two Democratic challengers are generally seen as leading in the polls. State Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, is considered to be well ahead in her challenge to Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke in western Wisconsin's 32nd District. Former Oshkosh Vice Mayor Jess King has held a narrower but steady lead over Republican Sen. Randy Hopper, who has been dogged by personal scandals, in eastern Wisconsin's 18th District.
In two more districts, Democratic challengers have run even in most polls while at some points opening narrow leads. State Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, has mounted a remarkable grass-roots campaign against Republican Sen. Alberta Darling in suburban Milwaukee's 8th District, while state Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, is mounting a similarly aggressive challenge in the small cities and rural communities of central Wisconsin's 14th District.