Recall Rematch: Kapanke to Challenge Shilling

In a rematch virtually nobody saw coming just weeks ago, former State Senator Dan Kapanke will challenge Sen. Jennifer Shilling for the 32nd State Senate. Shilling defeated Kapanke in a heated 2011 recall election in the tempest of Act 10.

Kapanke filed papers with the GAB this week. He will hold an event tomorrow where he’ll likely formally announce his challenge of Shilling.

Since he lost his state Senate seat, Kapanke has returned to private life as the owner of the semi-pro La Crosse Loggers baseball team, which has transformed the main park on La Crosse’s north side into a family-friendly venue.

He retains a sort of heroic status among Republicans throughout western Wisconsin and will therefore put together a strong grassroots operation. He will also likely raise all the money he needs to run an extremely competitive campaign.

Shilling’s state Senate committee reported $64,480.18 cash on hand in its most recent report. That’s a good starting place, but total spending in the race could realistically push $1 million.

Shilling defeated Kapanke by about nine percent in the white-hot 2011 recall, just months after Act 10 generated massive protests in Madison and recall attempts around the state. Shilling got 33,193 votes to Kapanke’s 26,724 in the recall – her voters were highly motivated by Act 10.

Kapanke and his family endured significant harassment in the run-up to the recall. While Kapanke has typically demurred about the vile behavior and threats, it’s commonly known that his wife, a nurse, found roofing nails on several occasions scattered around their driveway late at night when she returned from work.

Kapanke was also harangued by school boards, groups of protesters gathered at his house late into the night, and Kapanke and his family were the top target of at least one death threat sent to state legislators.

Despite the low turnout in the recall, in which government workers were motivated to show up and vote, Kapanke has always enjoyed strong bipartisan appeal in the district. In his 2008 re-election Kapanke got 45,154 votes to opponent Tara Johnson’s 42,647. That election coincided with the Obama wave election in which Barack Obama won upwards of 60 percent in the 32nd Senate district.

In her first general election in 2012, Shilling won 51,153 votes to challenger Bill Feehan’s 36,545. Still steeped in Act 10 fervor, that race hinged on a classic “October surprise” in which Shilling sent a series of mailers accusing Feehan of being a domestic abuser. The mailer relied on a police report from 2000, but the charges had been dismissed 12 years prior to the election (a fact conveniently omitted from the mail campaign) . Shilling’s margin in that election was likely greatly inflated as a result of the smear campaign.

Given the nastiness of her two most recent elections combined with Kapanke’s wide popularity and grassroots appeal, Shilling might once again turn to negative campaigning. That would be a risk for Shilling given Kapanke’s wide respect, painting the race as a bitter partisan versus an upstanding community leader with sky-high name ID.

Turnout in the general election will also matter. While Kapanke may be able to peel away a large chunk of moderate Shilling voters (there were thousands of Obama-Kapanke voters in 2008), Republican turnout will also be a major factor in bridging the 45,000 Kapanke got in ’08 and the 51,000 Shilling got in ’12. If theories of depressed Democratic turnout hold true in November, that could help propel Kapanke to victory.

Kapanke’s candidacy is also likely to motivate Republican voters and activists in the district, who are eager to win. Concurrent with Shilling’s recall win, Democrat Steve Doyle captured Republican Mike Huebsch’s Assembly seat in 2011 when he joined the Walker administration, leaving Lee Nerison as the only remaining Republican legislator in the 32nd. A negative campaign by Shilling could backfire by motivating Republicans into action. Such a strategy could also enhance Kapanke’s image as a well-liked leader with broad appeal and pigeonhole Shilling as an unscrupulous partisan.

In the five years since Act 10 was signed into law, public opposition to the law has largely transformed into support as the law generates more and more taxpayer savings. A recent estimate by the MacIver Institute shows Act 10 has saved Wisconsin taxpayers about $5 billion since its enactment. Local governments have been given the ability to reduce taxes or put more money into classrooms, tax cuts, or other operations.

Kapanke says he knew his vote for Act 10 could cause him to lose an election, but he voted for it because the state was on an unsustainable fiscal path. With rising taxes a major concern throughout the district, Kapanke’s vote for Act 10 could be viewed as a positive now that it’s 5 years in the rearview mirror. At the very least, the fervor over the law has certainly subsided.

Kapanke is clearly motivated by an intrinsic desire to serve. At the La Crosse GOP’s Lincoln Dinner in February, he quoted a favorite motto of his: “It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years.” He said he realized to his dismay that he’d become comfortable with his life and thus felt compelled to get back into action.

Kapanke versus Shilling will be an interesting race that will capture statewide attention and change the complexion of both parties’ electoral strategy for the Senate.

Disclaimer: I work for the above-mentioned MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly my own.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.