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Tea Party Summers in Wisconsin

National tea party groups are quickly pivoting from the debt debate to upcoming recall elections in Wisconsin that could shift the power in an ongoing fight over labor unions and their bargaining rights.

Tea Party Express and Tea Party Nation plan to hold nearly a dozen rallies this weekend as part of a bus tour to defend six Republican state Senators in special elections Tuesday. This tea party pair represents a wide swath of the national tea party movement, and together the groups control millions of dollars.

Their focus on a state issue is atypical, but so is the battle in Wisconsin, which has become ground zero for a fight between pro-union liberals and conservatives who see unions as an obstacle to small government and free markets.

Wisconsin’s “governor and these Republicans were trying to do their job of reining in the spending. Now they’re being targeted,” Amy Kremer, who co-chairs Tea Party Express, explained in an interview.

This summer, nine Wisconsin legislators face possible recall by the voters over a divisive law passed this spring that curbs the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The special elections being held next week were the result of petitions signed by angry voters. Six Republicans face recall for supporting the law, while two Democrats could lose power for leaving the state in an effort to block the bill by preventing the state Legislature from having a quorum. A third Democrat already defeated his opponent in a July election.

If Democrats win five of the eight remaining recall elections in this fight — two Democrats also face recall races Aug. 16 — they would take majority control of the state Senate away from Republicans, who earlier this year used their undivided control in Madison to pass the union-limiting law.

The protests that followed set the stage for a grass-roots battle set to spill into the election cycle.

“I think this is the beginning of the 2012 election process, and I imagine that these races will have national implications,” Kremer said.

Indeed, much of the millions of dollars spent on the recall races have come from groups outside the state.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO and National Education Association organized under the We Are Wisconsin PAC banner have spent millions of dollars on ads. Conservative groups Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity have led the opposition.

Last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus announced that the RNC is going “all in” to defend Wisconsin Republicans. It has organized volunteers to make phone calls and to knock on doors to urge conservatives to vote.

“Obama for America has obviously been vocal about this; the labor unions are vocal. We just want to make sure we’re evening the playing field,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said in an interview.

At the same time, the Wisconsin Democratic Party reached out to 1.4 million voters. Chairman Mike Tate told reporters this week that party polling shows Democrats leading or in a dead heat in all six of Tuesday’s races.

Tea party groups are jumping into the busy field partly because they fear conservatives intimidated by heavy liberal spending will stay home Tuesday, Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell told Roll Call.

“If you watch Wisconsin TV or listen to the radio, it’s impossible not to feel beaten down just from the amount of money and amount of pressure [liberal groups] are bringing to this,” he added.

But it’s uncertain whether the last-minute rallies will do anything to change that, especially since labor unions have been organizing in Wisconsin for months.

“No one in Wisconsin cares about a giant tea party bus,” said Kelly Steele, spokesman for the We Are Wisconsin PAC. “Outside tea party flashiness won’t make a damn bit of difference in the end.”

Labor unions are wrapping up a
monthlong bus tour of their own. The Wisconsin AFL-CIO’s “Truth Tour” included phone banking and canvassing, which Phil Neuenfeldt, the union’s state president, said tea party groups are “hard-pressed to counter.”

Even tea party activists appear overwhelmed by the liberal effort. Dick Koltz, founder of Northeast Wisconsin Patriots, a tea party group near Green Bay, said some of his group’s 300 members have helped with phone drives for conservatives. But Koltz said their efforts are “dwarfed” by those on the left.

“They have a well-organized group,” Koltz said. “I think [rallies] will inspire people, but not a lot. … We want to hopefully get information out. It’s just sickening how many [pro-Democrat] commercials are out there.”

Still, some conservatives remain optimistic about next week’s elections.

Matt Seaholm, who directs Americans for Prosperity’s Wisconsin efforts, said the strong liberal front might actually motivate conservatives.

“The message from the left probably lights a fire in many conservatives,” he said. “There is certainly still a strong intensity among conservative voters.”

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