JOHN NICHOLS: How ‘fake Democrats’ strategy blew up on GOP

July 14, 2011
John Nichols

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, his conservative legislative allies, the Republican Party of Wisconsin and county Republican parties tried everything in their power to thwart the recall election process, which could check and balance Walker's extreme anti-labor, anti-public schools, anti-social services and anti-local democracy agenda.

Frightened by the prospect of losing three or more Republican-held seats, and with them control of the state Senate, the GOP challenged the petitions that forced the recall elections against six Republican senators who backed the governor's agenda. And they failed.Then Republican lawyers sought injunctions. And they failed.

Then Republicans challenged the petitions that qualified a strong field of Democratic contenders for the six Senate seats. And they failed.

Finally, the Republicans recruited so-called "fake Democrats" - conservatives with histories of GOP activism - and filed their names in the Democratic primaries. GOP operatives and the fake Democrats themselves claimed they only wanted to delay the process and that they were not going to mount serious campaigns going into Tuesday's primary elections. Then the Republicans mounted a furious last-minute campaign - spending thousands of dollars for "robo-calls" on behalf of the fake Democrats, campaign signs, and a flurry of emails and other digital communications to Republican activists urging them to take advantage of Wisconsin's open-primary system to "cross over" and vote for the fake Democrats.

All of this was done in hopes of displacing one or more of the real Democrats.

The Republicans thought they had a sly strategy.

But once again, they failed.

All six "real Democrats" won their primaries Tuesday, and they won big - with as much as 70 percent of the vote in some districts.

“The Republicans pulled out the stops to try and beat the Democrats. They made this a mini-general election, the first real recall test, and they lost,” said former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, a Democrat who has worked closely with the state’s unions. “This is a big night for the Democrats, and a big night for those of us who believe that these recalls are going to work.”

Of course, the Aug. 9 contests between the six Democratic challengers and the six Republican senators will be more traditional competitions. And the incumbent senators will have name recognition, all the campaign money they will need, and “independent” expenditures on their behalf by out-of-state interests that back the governor’s initiatives to bust unions, privatize schools and bend laws to favor the agenda of multinational corporations. That will, almost certainly, make the contests closer — and the fight to hold Walker to account will be complicated by three recall elections that the Republicans have mounted against Democratic senators.

But Tuesday's Democratic primaries provided a test of the operations of both parties. And the Democrats prevailed. One real Democrat, state Rep. Jennifer Shilling (challenging Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke in western Wisconsin), won 70 percent of the primary vote. Democrat Jessica King (the former Oshkosh deputy mayor who is challenging Republican Sen. Randy Hopper in eastern Wisconsin) won 69 percent. Democratic state Rep. Fred Clark (challenging Republican Sen. Luther Olsen in central Wisconsin) won 67 percent. Democrat Nancy Nusbaum (a former Brown County executive (challenging Republican Sen. Rob Cowles in the Green Bay area) won 65 percent. Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch (challenging Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, in suburban Milwaukee) won 64 percent.

Republicans mounted their most aggressive challenge against Shelly Moore, a western-Wisconsin teacher who is challenging Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf. Moore was targeted for attack by the Republican Party of Wisconsin, and then the St. Croix County Republican Party mounted robo-call and email campaigns on behalf of the fake Democrat opposing her.

Yet Moore won with 54 percent, outpacing the fake Democrat by more than 2,500 votes.

Andy Gussert, a former director of the state Senate Democratic caucus, says the Republicans made a big mistake.

“They thought they could pull a fast one, file fake Democrats, run a stealth campaign and maybe upset one of the real Democrats. Instead, they turned these primaries into real tests that people were paying attention to,” explained Gussert. “The real Democrats come out of the primaries with wins. They’ve beaten Republicans and they can beat them again.”