Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Olsen vs. ...?

Opponents of Sen. Luther Olsen (R–Ripon) claim they have enough signatures to force a recall election this year.

Well, bully for them. The question is: Who will run against Olsen?

This is not merely a question posed by someone who believes that the recalls of Republican senators are a waste of taxpayer dollars with the goal of draining GOP campaign treasuries in time for the 2012 elections. This is also not merely a question from someone who believes recalls are appropriate only for misconduct in office (say, not showing up for work for several weeks). This is a serious question: Who will run against Olsen?

It won't be anyone who ran against Olsen in 2008. He was unopposed in what was a very good year for Democrats nationally and in Wisconsin specifically. And it won't be any Democrat who ran against him in 2004, because, after winning the 14th Senate District Republican primary with 60 percent of the vote against two other candidates, Olsen was unopposed in the general election to replace former Sen. Robert Welch (R–Redgranite).

Olsen came to the Senate after representing the 41st Assembly District from 1995 to 2005. After winning the Republican primary in 1994 in the race to replace Rep. Bob Welch (yes, the same Welch, who got the crazy idea of running against Herb Kohl), Olsen's only general election opponent was one of the candidates he defeated in the primary, who ran as a write-in candidate. Olsen then was unopposed in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002.

That's right, readers. Luther Olsen has never faced a Democrat in any of his seven previous legislative elections. And Olsen's legislative career followed (well, with two years of overlap) 21 years on the Berlin school board. Regardless of what his constituents think about his votes, Olsen clearly knows how to win elections.

The irony of this recall effort is that Olsen has been criticized over the years for ... not being conservative enough. (Examples here, here and here.) He (wrongly) opposed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights that would have prevented the state's Mississippi River flood of red ink. He also (wrongly) opposed concealed-carry legislation, which did not make the National Rifle Association fans of his.

Olsen also weathered criticism over the involvement of his and his brother's business in ethanol and subsidies therefor, without electoral consequences. For that matter, he was unopposed in years that one would think some Democrat would have run, including four elections where Democratic presidential candidates won Wisconsin's electoral votes.


Moreover, it's not as if the 14th Senate District fits anyone's definition of a swing district. (In fact, the aldermanic district I live in in Ripon is probably as Democratic-leaning as it gets here, given that this aldermanic district includes the Ripon College dorms.) The 14th District is an incredibly spread out district, from Clintonville to the north to Baraboo to the south. (Ah, the joys of gerrymandering. My parents live near Waupaca, and we all have the same state senator.) Every county in the district voted for Scott Walker Nov. 2. For that matter, most of the district voted for Republican Mark Green in 2006. (On those maps in the link, by the way, Republican counties are blue.) It's more surprising, in fact, that Olsen hasn't had a conservative challenger over the years given the district's makeup.

One of the 14th Senate District's three Assembly districts, the 42nd, has been represented by "progressive" (his term) Fred Clark (D–Baraboo) since 2009, but Clark's two predecessors were both Republicans. Clark is so popular in his district that he won Nov. 2 with a whole 51 percent of the vote, after which he discovered the difference between being in the Assembly's majority party and being in the Assembly's minority party. And even if Clark decides to run (as he reportedly will), will his apparent (based on his website) brand of Dane County-style liberalism fly in Fond du Lac County or Waupaca County? (The fact he formerly worked for the Department of Natural Resources might be enough to tank his candidacy to his north.) Republicans represent the 40th (Kevin Petersen of Waupaca) and 41st (Joan Ballweg of Markesan) Assembly districts, and have done so for a long time.

The last Democrat to run in the 14th Senate District was my neighbor, Fond du Lac County Board chairman Marty Farrell, who lost to Welch in the 1995 Senate special election after Sen.  Joe Leean (R–Waupaca) resigned to become the secretary of health and family services in the Tommy Thompson administration. I haven't seen Marty recently, but merely because his last legislative race was 16 years ago, I'm skeptical that he would run.

Three other candidates come to mind, but all are 0-for-elections. Democrat Scott Milheiser of Fremont, chair of the combined Waupaca and Waushara county Democratic parties, lost to Ballweg and Democrat Jon Baltmanis of Waupaca lost to Petersen in 2010. Losing an Assembly race is not usually considered a good start to winning a Senate race. There is also Jay Selthofner, who ran as an independent against Ballweg on a marijuana platform and would seem less encumbered by Democrats' dreary electoral history in the 14th District.

Perhaps Red Fred, Milheiser, Baltmanis or Selthofner will figure 2011 is a free shot, a dress rehearsal for 2012. Or perhaps someone else -- a Democratic county official or even a political neophyte -- will feel sufficiently inspired by the recall wave to throw his or her hat in the ring. I have not agreed with all the positions Luther has taken over the years, but the one thing his political career has demonstrated is that in legislative elections in this area, Luther Olsen doesn't lose. What is the point of a recall election that those who seek the recall aren't likely to win?

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