‘Uncharted Territory’: How Long Could The Walker Recall Campaign Take?

With the Wisconsin Democrats having officially kicked off their recall campaign against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the state is set for the political battle to come next year. So the question is: How long will it take?

Late Thursday night, the recall group United Wisconsin announced that they have already collected over 50,000 signatures, in the two days since the launch on Tuesday: “Over 50,000 Wisconsin residents signing recall petitions in the first 48 hours is a clear sign that Wisconsin is not going to stand for Walker’s lies and destruction of our state.”

Of course, after months of build-up to the recall, we should expect an initial rush of signatures in the first few days. As such, the situation needs to be continually observed, to see whether the Dems can make the goal.

And then, if the Dems do make the threshold, there’s no clear timetable for how long an election might take. In separate interviews with TPM, both the state Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski and state Government Accountability Board (which oversees elections in the state) spokesman Reid Magney used the same phrase to describe the situation: “Uncharted territory.”Magney explained the timeline to TPM, and all of the variables that could come into play. Keep in mind, though, that all of the following discussion is based on an assumption that the Dems will in fact gather the needed signatures.

The bottom line: If the signatures are submitted in mid-January, and there were no extension of the review, then the election could be held as soon as late March. But should that scenario prove unrealistic, with an added extension and a primary, it could go into late May or early June.

This is the second big recall campaign in the state, following the effort earlier this year by the Dems to recall their way to control of the state Senate, from a 19-14 Republican majority. However, they were also hampered by the fact that the only recall-eligible districts were ones where the incumbent had won their terms in 2008, even during that year’s Democratic wave. In the end, they picked up two seats, just short of the magic number of three, for a narrow 17-16 Republican majority.

Under Wisconsin’s recall law, elected officials must have served at least one year of their current term before being recalled — thus delaying any Dem efforts to recall Walker, and also exempting earlier this year the half of the Senate that was just elected in 2010.

In order to trigger a recall against Walker, the Dems must meet a high bar: Signatures of at least 25 percent of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election must be collected in a 60-day window. That means the Dems must get over 540,000 signatures — over 9,000 per day, statewide — plus some significant buffer that campaigns routinely collect in order to protect against signatures being disqualified over one imperfection or another.

The GAB has set a deadline of January 17, a Tuesday, for the Democrats to turn in the signature, but the Dems themselves are targeting for the preceding Friday, January 13. (You’ll soon see the reasons why — this could potentially make a difference of having the election take place a week sooner.)

In addition, recall canvassers are collecting at least two sets of signatures: One for Walker, and another for Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. And if triggered, those recalls would be held as separate contests on the ballot — meaning that in theory, the recalls could end with one party holding the governorship, and another the lieutenant governorship. (In addition, the Dems are targeting a handful of state Senate seats.)

Magney explained that under the law, the board has 31 days to review signatures — but they anticipate asking a court for a one-month extension, as they previously did in this year’s state Senate recalls, and that request was granted.

The board has additionally made plans for handling the increased load of signatures, which would involve the hiring of temporary workers. Might they need even more time than 60 days total, TPM asked?

“At this point I don’t know. it’s too early to say. but what we’re looking at right now is a total of 60 days,” Magney said. “But again, we are in completely uncharted territory right now.”

From that point, the board would set the election for six Tuesdays after their declaration that the signature threshold has been met — that is, if there is no need for a primary. If there is a primary, then the six-Tuesdays contest will be the primary, and the general then four weeks after that.

This brings us back to something that occurred in the state Senate recalls. Soon after the recall elections were triggered, Republicans declared a strategy to plant fake candidates in the Democratic primaries — which they called “protest candidates” — in order to delay the general elections from July to August, while the GOP incumbents ran unopposed. The candidates included a GOP activist in his 20s, and an octogenarian former GOP state representative, among others. This did indeed delay the general elections — at a significant cost to the taxpayers.

(Predictably, this led to some low-level dirty tricks and mischief-making, with conservatives being urged to vote in the Democratic primaries for the fake Dems. Despite the possibility of countering this, Democrats specifically rejected entreaties by labor to respond in kind and run fake Republicans, in order to keep Republican voters in their own primaries. In the end, all the official Dems won their primaries, though one of them was close — and that latter Dem did not come close to winning the general election.)

In addition, Magney noted that there is one more x-factor. In the previous recalls, all nine declarations were challenged in court by the incumbents and their parties. The challenges were all rejected in court, and the elections were not in any way delayed, either. However, because of the increased volume of signatures here — well over a million for both Walker and Kleefisch, compared to 200,000 in the state Senate recalls — Magney could not entirely rule out the scenario of a court-ordered delay.

For his part, Zielinski declined to make a firm prediction of when the election will be, noting that the calendar was subject to delays last time around.

“We’re totally in uncharted waters. There are pressures put on the GAB that have never been in the history of the state. So we’re sympathetic,” said Zielinski. “But we also understand the strategy of the Republicans is to delay, delay and delay. If we have enough signatures to start a recall, and Republicans want to push it back, we think the public deserves the election they called for.”

Zielinski also said that the Dems will likely not have an official declared candidate until around the time that the signatures are submitted, in order to keep the focus on campaigning against Walker. However, potential candidates could include former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, Milwaukee Mayor and 2010 gubernatorial nominee Tom Barrett, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, and retiring U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. (U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, state Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold have previously taken their names out of the running.)

Zielinski predicted a united Dem field around one candidate.

“We fully anticipate that they will again run a fake Democrat to primary whatever candidate we have. We don’t anticipate a primary because we know the stakes here. We know that a real primary on our end helps Scott Walker. However, we fully anticipate that Scott Walker will primary us as a strategy — more dirty tricks.”