2011 Wisconsin Senate recall elections

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Recall elections for nine Wisconsin state senators were held during the summer of 2011; one was held on July 19, and six on August 9, with two more held on August 16. Voters attempted to put 16 state senators up for recall, eight Democrats and eight Republicans, because of the budget bill proposed by Governor Scott Walker and circumstances surrounding it.[1] Republicans targeted Democrats for leaving the state for three weeks to prevent the bill from receiving a vote, while Democrats targeted Republicans for voting to significantly limit public employee collective bargaining.[2] Scholars could cite only three times in American history when more than one state legislator has been recalled at roughly the same time over the same issue.[3]

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) certified six recall petitions filed against Republican senators[4] and three recall petitions filed against Democratic senators. Democrats needed a net gain of three seats to take control of the Senate. Republicans needed a net gain of one seat to gain a quorum-proof supermajority on fiscal spending.[5][6] Of the nine recall elections, Democrats held on to all three of their challenged seats; Republicans lost only two of their six challenged seats thus they retained their majority in and control of the State Senate, albeit by a slightly narrower margin.[7]

More than $35 million was spent on the recall races. The spending on the nine races compares to $19.3 million spent in 2010's 115 legislative races, and approaches the $37.4 million spent in the race for governor.[7]

Successful petitions[edit]

Dist. Location Incumbent Party Signatures
approved (%)
Days spent
collecting signatures
(60 max)
2 Allouez, Ashwaubenon, De Pere, Kaukauna, and Shawano Robert Cowles Republican 15,960 23,959 (150%) 58
8 Northern suburbs of Milwaukee Alberta Darling Republican 20,343 22,243 (109%) 50
10 River Falls, Menomonie, Hudson, and Grantsburg Sheila Harsdorf Republican 15,744 23,685 (150%) 48
12 Northeastern Wisconsin Jim Holperin Democratic 15,960 19,255 (121%) 58
14 Baraboo, Wisconsin Dells, Ripon and Waupaca Luther Olsen Republican 14,733 22,207 (150%) 47
18 Fond du Lac and Oshkosh Randy Hopper Republican 15,269 22,953 (150%) 36
22 Kenosha County Robert Wirch Democratic 13,537 17,138 (127%) 55
30 Green Bay, Oconto, and Marinette Dave Hansen Democratic 13,852 15,540 (112%) 54
32 La Crosse, Onalaska, Viroqua, and Prairie du Chien Dan Kapanke Republican 15,588 21,776 (140%) 30


Primary recall elections took place in July. The first general recall election also took place in that month, with Democratic Senator Dave Hansen retaining his seat. Six general elections took place on August 9 resulting in four Republican senators retaining their seats and two being defeated with Republicans keeping a majority in the Wisconsin Senate.[8] Two Democratic incumbents (Wirch, Holperin) prevailed in their own recall races on August 16, which left Republicans with a net one-vote majority in the Wisconsin Senate.[9]


Date Dist. Incumbent Party Votes[10] Percent
July 12 2 Nancy J. Nusbaum Democratic 14,200 65%
Otto Junkermann Democratic
7,576 35%
8 Sandy Pasch Democratic 20,915 65%
Gladys Huber Democratic
11,660 35%
10 Shelly Moore Democratic 17,496 55%
Isaac Weix Democratic
14,990 45%
14 Fred Clark Democratic 14,989 67%
Rol Church Democratic
7,281 33%
18 Jessica King Democratic 19,562 69%
John D. Buckstaff Democratic
8,957 33%
32 Jennifer Shilling Democratic 25,338 70%
James D. Smith Democratic
10,664 30%
July 19 12 Kim Simac Republican 11,301 59%
Robert Lussow Republican 7,767 41%
22 Jonathan Steitz Republican 5,981 64%
Fred R. Ekornaas Republican 3,369 36%

General elections[edit]

Date Dist. Candidate Party Votes Percent
July 19 30 Dave Hansen (inc.) Democratic 22,052 67%
David VanderLeest Republican 11,054 33%
August 9 2 Robert Cowles (inc.) Republican 27,037 57%
Nancy J. Nusbaum Democratic 19,974 43%
8 Alberta Darling (inc.) Republican 39,471 54%
Sandy Pasch Democratic 34,096 46%
10 Sheila Harsdorf (inc.) Republican 37,099 58%
Shelly Moore Democratic 27,250 42%
14 Luther Olsen (inc.) Republican 26,554 52%
Fred Clark Democratic 24,365 48%
18 Randy Hopper (inc.) Republican 26,937 49%
Jessica King Democratic 28,188 51%
32 Dan Kapanke (inc.) Republican 26,724 45%
Jennifer Shilling Democratic 33,192 55%
August 16 12 Jim Holperin (inc.) Democratic 30,321 55%
Kim Simac Republican 24,813 45%
22 Robert Wirch (inc.) Democratic 26,524 57%
Jonathan Steitz Republican 19,662 43%

County Results[edit]

County won
Brown R 56% 12,828 44% 9,889
Oconto R 60% 2,334 40% 1,543
Outagamie R 56% 6,744 44% 5,218
Shawano R 60% 4,893 40% 3,230
Waupaca R 72% 238 28% 94
County won
Milwaukee D 38% 13,606 62% 22,266
Ozaukee R 67% 8,461 33% 4,176
Washington R 73% 7,955 27% 2,887
Waukesha R 66% 9,449 34% 4,767
County won
Burnett R 62% 2,268 38% 1,419
Dunn D 44% 2,377 56% 3,011
Pierce R 54% 6,014 46% 5,207
Polk R 59% 8,376 41% 5,833
St. Croix R 61% 18,064 39% 11,780
County won
Adams D 42% 288 58% 395
Columbia D 40% 2,804 60% 4,229
Fond du Lac R 60% 2,394 40% 1,574
Green Lake R 64% 4,162 36% 2,302
Marquette R 51% 2,304 49% 2,204
Outagamie R 57% 748 43% 567
Sauk D 40% 2,833 60% 4,210
Shawano D 40% 2 60% 3
Waupaca R 55% 7,495 45% 6,111
Waushara R 56% 3,524 44% 2,770
County won
Dodge D 44% 655 56% 819
Fond du Lac R 54% 14,081 46% 12,215
Winnebago D 45% 12,201 55% 15,153
County won
Crawford D 46% 2,558 54% 2,996
La Crosse D 43% 17,553 57% 23,109
Monroe R 56% 1,222 44% 975
Richland D 43% 365 57% 475
Vernon D 47% 5,026 53% 5,637

'Placeholder' candidates[edit]

In all six Democratic-led recall attempts against Republican Senators, the Republican Party organized and supported the nominations of 'placeholder' candidates in the Democratic primaries (called "Fake Democrats" by some). According to the Republican Party of Wisconsin, the purpose of the placeholder candidates was to force Democratic primaries and delay the general election, allowing their incumbent Senators to have additional time to campaign.[11] Robocalls were sent out to 20,000 conservative voters for candidate Isaac Weix in an effort to get Republicans to cross over and vote in the primary.[12] All the placeholder candidates were defeated. The cost to the state was estimated to be more than $475,000.[13]

State Republicans blamed the cost on Democrats, stating that it was "all State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate's doing", as they had promoted the idea of recalls, and said that Democrats should pay the additional cost.[12] Although recall efforts against Democratic senators began about a week before Republican senators,[14] the Wisconsin Democratic Party officially backed the recall efforts as early as March 2.[15] Official state Republican Party support related to the recall elections occurred when the placeholder candidates were put in place in June.[16]

Senate District 30[edit]

In Senate district 30, Republican candidate John Nygren, a State Representative from House District 89 in Marinette, was removed from the ballot in the July 19 recall election for Democratic Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay. The state Government Accountability Board voted unanimously on June 27 that Nygren had received only 398 of the required 400 valid signatures on his nominating papers. This only left Recall Organizer David VanderLeest as the only certified candidate against Senator Hansen. The board had initially found that Nygren had submitted 424 qualifying voter signatures, but 39 signatures were challenged by Democrats as not being from Hansen's district, and 26 of the challenged signatures were determined to be invalid.[17][18] Nygren filed a lawsuit in Dane County Court seeking to overturn the board's decision, but was unsuccessful.[19][20]

Elector qualification changes[edit]

These recall elections were Wisconsin's first under provisions of a newly enacted law making two significant changes to the eligibility requirements for voting—photo ID and a longer residency requirement (from 10 to 28 days)—as well as the minor change of requiring electors to sign in on the poll book.[21]

Voters were asked to show photo identification at the polls in order to vote.[22] Because the law was signed on May 25 and had been in effect only since June 10, there was insufficient time for all voters without such identification to obtain a state ID card (a non-driving "driver's license") from the Department of Transportation. Consequently, in a "soft implementation" (practice for future elections), poll workers asked to see photo ID but did not require it.[23] The photo ID serves as proof of identity but not necessarily of residence, which is a separate issue.[24]

Political advertising strategies[edit]

Although the plan to eliminate most collective bargaining for public employees was the issue that sparked the recall campaigns, neither side talked much about that issue in the recall elections. Democrats were telling voters Republicans had gone the wrong way with the state budget by cutting schools and providing tax breaks to businesses and investors. Republicans touted their ability to honestly balance the state budget and keep taxes low.[25][26]

Recall controversies[edit]

Pro-Walker protesters in Merrill, Wisconsin, attempting to recall Senator Holperin (D-12th District) claimed to be intimidated by a crowd of Holperin supporters, one of whom reportedly ripped up some of their recall petitions.[27][28] Similarly, pro-union protesters in River Falls, Wisconsin, attempting to recall Senator Harsdorf (R-10th District) allegedly had their petitions snatched by a local man who drove away in a car before dropping them into a puddle.[29]

On March 17, one Republican petitioner collecting signatures to recall Senator Hansen allegedly stole several personal belongings from a couple. The man in question was found to be from Colorado and had a felony record; he had come to Wisconsin with other out-of-state petitioners.[30] On the evening of April 14, an apparent break-in occurred at an office building owned by supporters of the recall of Senator Hansen. The burglar allegedly made off with petitions, a computer, and T-shirts, worth $1,000 in total.[31] On May 3, Professor Stephen Richards of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh was reprimanded for encouraging students to sign a recall petition against Republican State Senator Randy Hopper.[32][33]

On June 22, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed a verified complaint with the Government Accountability Board against Shelly Moore for knowingly violating state law by using taxpayer funded resources for political campaigning. Moore, a public school teacher and WEAC union leader, is challenging incumbent candidate Sheila Harsdorf in the 10th Senate district recall election. The Wisconsin Public Purpose Doctrine[citation needed] prohibits the use of government resources for a nonpublic purpose such as campaign activity, and political candidates are prohibited under state law from unlawfully accepting anything of value for campaign purposes.[34] Democrats responded by stating that Moore could not be campaigning, as the recall effort did not exist when the emails were written.[citation needed]

On July 12, exit poll workers outside voting locations in Menomonee Falls and Butler were handing out what appeared to look like voting ballots to those who had voted. Handing out such pieces of paper is illegal within 100 feet of a polling location. Others were accused of blocking polling locations. Menomonee Falls and Butler are within Alberta Darling's 8th Senate district.[35]

Later that month, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group, began sending absentee ballots to Democratic voters in all districts undergoing recall elections,[36] with instructions to return the ballots to the city clerk before August 11 even though the recall election itself is being held August 9 in those districts.[37] In addition, the voters were instructed to return the ballots to what was claimed to be "the absentee ballot processing center", but was actually a mailing address for conservative group Wisconsin Family Action.[38][39]

On July 29, the Government Accountability Board criticized a Republican-allied voter ID advocacy group We're Watching Wisconsin Elections,[40][41] for publishing reference guides for election observers that featured "numerous significant and factual errors."[42] For example, the reference guides stated that student voters using their college ID must present "a tuition receipt with their name and address on it dated within the last 9 months".[43] Wisconsin voter ID law does not actually require such a receipt.[44][45]

On August 1, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Board accusing Sandy Pasch's campaign of possible collusion with the group Citizen Action of Wisconsin, of which Pasch is a member of the board of directors.[46] Pasch claimed she had had no contact with anyone at Citizen Action regarding any political activities.[47] Gillian Morris, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action both stated that there was no coordination whatsoever between Pasch in the recall election, and Citizen Action.[48] An open records request revealed a receipt of a talking points memo from Citizen Action during the Budget Repair battle to Rep. Pasch’s office.[49] That same day, the liberal group Wisconsin Jobs Now offered free food and offered rides to vote. State election authorities questioned whether it was a violation of election law.[50] Offering rewards in exchange for voting is illegal.[47] The Milwaukee District Attorney later dismissed the complaint, after a staff member of the self-described conservative organization Media Trackers who made the charge recanted. On August 3, the anti-abortion groups Wisconsin Right to Life and Family Action allegedly offered gift cards and other rewards to volunteers, according to messages obtained by local press. A Milwaukee County prosecutor is reviewing the issue.[51]

Newspaper endorsements[edit]

  • The Capital Times endorsed Rep. Clark in the 14th SD.[52]
  • The Green Bay Press-Gazette endorsed Sen. Cowles in the 2nd and Sen. Olsen in the 14th SD.[53]


The amount of money being spent on the recall elections was over $30 million, with $25 million of that coming from outside groups on both sides and $5 million being spent by the candidates.[54] The flow of money came as unions saw the recall elections as the best way to halt Walker's agenda and to send a message to other states considering changing their collective bargaining laws. Unions played a significant role for Democrats by spending money on advertising, and supplying manpower in all the Senate districts. Conservative groups responded with their own spending for the elections.[7]

Pro-Democratic unions have fundraised roughly $9.7 million for use in the Wisconsin recall elections.[55] Spending by Republican organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, is harder to quantify, as many of them do not report their spendings or receipts publicly. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, roughly $12–$13 million had been spent on the recall elections by outside groups, as of early August, with conservative groups outspending liberals.[56]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Liz Halloran (March 8, 2011). "Recall Efforts In Wisconsin Face Tough Odds". National Public Radio. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
  2. ^ Tom Tolan (April 26, 2011). "At least 9 Wisconsin state senators face recall". National Public Radio. Retrieved May 23, 2011.
  3. ^ Craig Gilbert. "Recall drives could make history". JSOnline.com. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
  4. ^ Marley, Patrick; Emma Roller (May 31, 2011). "Panel OKs recall elections against 3 more Republicans". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Retrieved July 26, 2011.
  5. ^ Belkin, Douglas; Kris Maher (March 10, 2011). "GOP Ends Union Stalemate". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 26, 2011.
  6. ^ Smith, Ben (February 21, 2011). "The Wisconsin Nuclear Option". Politico. Retrieved July 26, 2011.
  7. ^ a b c Tom Tolan and Patrick Marley (August 10, 2011). "Republicans take 4 of 6 in recall elections, hold Senate". Jsonline.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  8. ^ "Results of August 9 recall general elections". Hosted.ap.org. August 10, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  9. ^ "Government Accountability Board Calendar". Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. Retrieved February 25, 2015.
  10. ^ "July 12 State Senate Recall Election Results". Green Bay: WLUK-TV onpolitix. July 12, 2011.
  11. ^ "Fake Democrats face real ones in Wisconsin Senate recall primaries". Archived from the original on July 15, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  12. ^ a b Tom Tolan and Jason Stein (July 13, 2011). "Voter poll shows discontent; blame for recall cost aired". JSOnline. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  13. ^ "Democratic chairman calls on GOP to pay for recall primary". JSOnline. July 13, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  14. ^ "Recall Election Information | Government Accountability Board". Gab.wi.gov. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  15. ^ Sargent, Greg. "Wisconsin Dems throw their weight behind drive to recall GOP Senators". Voices.washingtonpost.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  16. ^ O'Donnell, Dan. "Fitzgerald supports running fake Democrats in recall elections". 620wtmj.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  17. ^ Stein, Jason (June 27, 2011). "Rep. Nygren knocked off ballot in Sen. Hansen recall election". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  18. ^ Antlfinger, Carrie (June 27, 2011). "GAB disqualifies Republican recall candidate for not having enough valid signatures". Madison State Journal. Associated Press.
  19. ^ "Some recall uncertainty remains as lawmaker sues to get on ballot". Wisconsin State Journal. Associated Press. June 29, 2011.
  20. ^ Beckett, Andrew (July 1, 2011). "Judge rejects Nygren ballot request". Wisconsin Radio Network.
  21. ^ "Voters get first taste of ID law and new rule requiring signature". Wisconsin State Journal. July 12, 2011.
  22. ^ "New residency rules will be in place for recall elections". The Capital Times. May 20, 2011.
  23. ^ "Need a free photo ID to vote? Be prepared to wait". Wisconsin State Journal. July 2, 2011.
  24. ^ "Does a photo ID need to have the current address on it to be valid for voting?". Wisconsin State Journal. July 10, 2011.
  25. ^ Patrick Marley and Jason Stein (July 28, 2011). "Recall campaigns aren't focusing on collective bargaining". Jsonline.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  26. ^ Galli, Tony (July 22, 2011). "Collective bargaining issue absent from ads". Wkow.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  27. ^ "Confrontation at Merrill rally to recall Holperin". WAOW.com. March 11, 2011. Retrieved March 21, 2011.
  28. ^ "Recall Disagreements". WJFW.com. March 15, 2011. Retrieved March 21, 2011.
  29. ^ Bailey, David (March 24, 2011). "Wisconsin man snatches petitions aimed at Republican senator". Reuters. Retrieved April 3, 2011.
  30. ^ Contorno, Steve (April 14, 2011). "Wisconsin Republican Party drops recall worker cited in Lambeau Field theft". Herald Times Reporter. Archived from the original on November 7, 2012. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
  31. ^ Schneider, Doug (April 16, 2011). "'Recall Dave Hansen' office broken into, burglarized". Green Bay Press Gazette. Archived from the original on November 7, 2012. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
  32. ^ "UWO Professor Recorded Encouraging Students to Sign Recall Petition". WBAY.com. May 3, 2011. Retrieved May 10, 2011.
  33. ^ Galli, Tony (May 3, 2011). "Professor disciplined for politicking, Hopper calls for resignation". WKOW.com. Retrieved May 10, 2011.
  34. ^ Wiff, Judy (June 22, 2011). "GOP says Moore used public school email for political activity; Weix breaks silence to complain". Hudson Star-Observer. Retrieved July 26, 2011.
  35. ^ Johnson, Mike (July 12, 2011). "Exit pollsters draw complaints from voters". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Retrieved July 26, 2011.
  36. ^ Sargent, Greg (August 5, 2011). "Should the U.S. seek to improve relations with Iran?". The Washington Post.
  37. ^ Catanese, David (August 1, 2011). "AFP Wisconsin ballots have late return date - David Catanese". Politico.Com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  38. ^ Eric Kleefeld (August 1, 2011). "Koch Group Mails Suspicious Absentee Ballot Letters In Wisconsin | TPMDC". Tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  39. ^ "Total Recall: Americans For Prosperity sends absentee ballots to Wisconsin Family Action". Dane101. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  40. ^ "Student IDs should be OK under voter ID law". Lacrossetribune.com. March 25, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  41. ^ "Election Observer Project". Werewatchingwisconsinelections.org. June 9, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  42. ^ "Caution Against Reliance on Third-Party Election Information | Government Accountability Board". Gab.wi.gov. July 29, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  43. ^ "Basics OF Election Observing" (PDF). Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  44. ^ "Voter Photo ID Law | Government Accountability Board". Gab.wi.gov. May 25, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  45. ^ "WI Republican Election Observer Guidelines Contain "numerous significant and factual errors"". Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  46. ^ Worthman, Sarah (August 1, 2011). "GOP Files Complaint Over Possible Collusion Between Pasch, Outside Group". Foxpoint.patch.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  47. ^ a b Larry Sandler, Don Walker and Tom Tolan (August 1, 2011). "Election officials probe voter block parties". Jsonline.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  48. ^ Walker, Don (August 1, 2011). "GOP files complaint into Pasch-Citizen Action tie". Jsonline.mobi. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  49. ^ "E-mails Raise Questions About Truthfulness of Pasch Denial". Mediatrackers.org. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  50. ^ Larry Sandler (August 1, 2011). "Combination of free food, rides to vote raises questions". Jsonline.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  51. ^ "DA probes anti-abortion group's rewards for signing recall voters". Jsonline.com. August 3, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  52. ^ Cap Times editorial (August 3, 2011). "Elect Clark over Walker rubber-stamp Olsen". Host.madison.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  53. ^ "Keep Cowles, Olsen in Senate". Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  54. ^ "$30 Million Pouring In to Influence Wisconsin Recall Elections". Abcnews.go.com. August 4, 2011. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  55. ^ "Liberal Recall Money Matrix". MacIver Institute. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  56. ^ Tom Tolan (August 2, 2011). "Unions raise $9.7 million to help Democrats in recalls". JSOnline. Retrieved October 5, 2011.