Sunday, April 24, 2011

Outlook: Senator Randy Hopper

Of all five Republican State Senators who have had recall signatures filed against them so far, Senator Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac) is seen by some as the most vulnerable. His opponent will be Jessica King, a long-time city council member, deputy mayor, and attorney from Oshkosh. She lost the seat to Sen. Hopper in 2008 by a few hundred votes.

Hopper has had an undistinguished first term in office, but seems to have developed a good record of keeping in contact with constituents. He also has been chosen to serve as one of the Republican representatives to the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, a real achievement for a senator with only two years experience. At one point, it's possible he may have been looked at as a candidate for future leadership.

That was before the details of an affair he had with 25-year-old GOP operative Valerie Cass became public, including accusations that he had helped place her in a job with the Walker administration. It was also before his estranged wife Alysia Hopper signed his recall petition and spoke out against him publicly, explaining that he lived in Madison, and not in Fond du Lac. It was before he directed constituents to a phone sex hotline, and before he told a room full of constituents at a listening session that he would not take questions or comment on their remarks, eliciting significant anger.

Hopper posing non-ironically with AFSCME supporters in 2008.
It's a lot for any opposition candidate to work with. To his benefit, it sounds like Hopper knows what he's up against; he's retained national talent to staff his campaign and was reportedly one of the beneficiaries of a major Washington fundraiser held in March to begin building a firewall against recall efforts.

After the jump, let's take a look at how Hopper was elected in 2008.

Hopper and King were vying for the seat vacated by long-time Republican legislator Carol Roessler of Oshkosh, who had served in the Senate since 1987 before being appointed to head an office in the Department of Revenue by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle. Be sure to click the link to see just what ground Sen. Hopper's district covers.

The race was a squeaker, with Hopper winning just 50.05% of the vote - only 163 votes separated the two. Fond du Lac is generally a very conservative town, and that's less true of the slightly larger Oshkosh, which, aside from a heavy labor presence and strong manufacturing base, saw an especially large student vote from UW-Oshkosh in 2008. The school is the large regional university of the Fox Valley. Student wards in Oshkosh accounted for about an 1,800 vote pickup for King in Oshkosh. With a summer election date likely, even if classes were in session, we will not see the same interest level in this recall election as we did for Barack Obama's victory in 2008.

In the City of Oshkosh, King racked up the score, picking up nearly 6,000 votes on Hopper in total. In Fond du Lac, Hopper picked up only 100 votes on King, splitting the town nearly evenly, with the even split likely attributable to the wide popularity Barack Obama enjoyed in Wisconsin at that time. It's in the district's small towns where the election was decided. Rural and small town voters made up for almost exactly the 6,000 vote deficit needed to put Hopper over the top. Perhaps the most important among these small towns was Waupun, where Hopper had the crucial support of prison guard unions, picking up about 1,200 votes to King's 400. He won Waupun voters nearly 3:1. 

On election night 2008, it was the late results coming in from Waupun that put a late damper on optimism within the King camp. I've spoken with people who say that the prison guard unions there are now perhaps 
the driving force behind the recall effort in Fond du Lac County. 

The 2010 midterms saw a return to the norm in local Assembly races, with a Republican drubbing a Democrat candidate for an open seat in Fond du Lac, an incumbent Republican going unchallenged in a rural district, and Democrat Gordon Hintz comfortably holding his seat in Oshkosh against a challenger. There was obviously no State Senate election, and there is no real indicative race district-wide.

April 2011's State Supreme court race shows the established patterns holding true. JoAnne Kloppenburg took 55% of the vote in Oshkosh; David Prosser took 60% county-wide in Fond du Lac County. Notably, the town of Waupun split its votes much more evenly, with Prosser winning by only about 50 votes there. Also of note, students at the UW-Oshkosh did not show up to vote, with very depressed turnout in those areas compared to 2008.

Here's what I think:

If we assume that prison guards and a good portion of the rest of the voting public looked at the Supreme Court election as a referendum on the policies of Governor Walker and the GOP legislature, it's not safe for Randy Hopper to expect rural areas and the town of Waupun to carry him across the finish line this time.

Fond du Lac and Oshkosh may come close to cancelling one another out, however. Using the Supreme Court race as an indicator, King will need to do better in Oshkosh than Kloppenburg did to run up the score at all.

It's unlikely Jessica King will see the heavy student turnout from UW-Oshkosh that she did her first go round in 2008. She must focus on winning over independent-minded voters who have been paying attention over the long run, and turning out the labor base in Oshkosh.

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