MADISON, Wis. (AP) — While Gov. Scott Walker called for more bipartisanship in the wake of his recall victory, a bitter fight over who controls the state Senate threatens any chance at reconciliation as Republicans fight to hold on and Democrats look to extract a victory from the recall season.
The closely watched recount of a Republican state senator's recall election is scheduled to wrap up Monday, but the battle over who will control the chamber for the rest of the year won't end when the final ballot is tallied. Lawsuits are expected, and would probably drag out the process for weeks or months.
"If they continue to try and hold onto this seat, white-knuckled kicking and screaming, it's going to continue the same partisan battles we've been having and that they supposedly wanted to end," said Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson.
An official canvass after the June 5 election showed Democratic challenger John Lehman leading GOP Sen. Van Wanggaard by 834 votes out of nearly 72,000 ballots cast, for a margin of 1.2 percentage points.
Even if Democrats survive the recount, their 17-16 majority may be short-lived. Sixteen senators - six Republicans, eight Democrats and two open seats currently held by Democrats - are up for elections in the fall. Those races will determine which party has control over the next two years. Thanks to a Republican-friendly new legislative district map passed last year, the GOP have reason to be confident about having control next year.
Still, Democrats see plenty to gain by winning the Wanggaard seat and holding the majority over the next six months even though the Senate isn't scheduled or expected to be back in session. Democrats could lay claim to the Senate presidency, and they would also have a leg up heading into the fall elections as Republicans would have to win at least one more seat than them to take over.
Democrats called on Wanggaard not to challenge the results, saying a recount would waste time and at least several thousand dollars of taxpayers' money. But Wanggaard said the margin was so small that voters deserved to know their ballots were counted accurately.
The recount isn't likely to change the outcome. With 80 percent of ballots recounted, Wanggaard had picked up a net of only 20 votes.
Racine County tabulators, who face a Monday deadline for finishing the recount, weren't expected to seek an extension. If they do finish Monday, both candidates will have until July 10 to appeal the outcome to a circuit judge. If that doesn't happen, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board is expected to certify the outcome within a day or so.
Wanggaard's campaign has discussed filing a legal challenge after it was discovered that some voters who registered at the polls failed to sign a so-called supplemental poll list when they also provided their names and addresses. GAB spokesman Reid Magney characterized the error as a clerical oversight by poll workers, and added that state law doesn't specify a procedure for removing the votes of people who didn't sign the list.
"You don't disenfranchise voters by taking their vote away because a poll worker made an administrative error," he said.
It's not clear how many voters failed to sign the list. Magney said he was told it was 100 to 200.
Brad Wojciechowski, a spokesman for the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee, said the number was in the teens.
"We've found throughout this process, their allegations are grossly exaggerated," he said of Republicans. "It's clerical error, it's worker error. This is not voter fraud."
A message left with the Racine County clerk was not immediately returned.
Jonathan Strasburg, an attorney representing Wanggaard's campaign in the recount, said he was concerned that the GAB seemed to be cherry-picking which rules it would enforce.
"They say if you don't sign your absentee ballot your vote is not counted. But if you don't sign the poll list, they say, 'no problem,' they're going to let that go," Strasburg said. "They're being inconsistent."
Sen. Mark Miller is the Democratic leader who would be in control of the majority if Lehman's victory is upheld. He said last week Republicans should back off. He said a Republican lawsuit would be a "desperate political game to maintain power."
Miller called on Republican Senate President Mike Ellis and GOP President Pro Tempore Joe Leibham to resign their positions on Tuesday "and let the transfer of power begin without more games and delay."
"Democrats want to move forward on job creation," Miller said. "It's time for Republicans to accept election results and focus on real issues."
There are a number of procedural issues that could be sticky for both parties if Democrats win control during this period when they are not scheduled to be in session.
For one, Ellis would retain the chamber's presidency unless the full Senate meets and votes to replace him. With the Senate being out of session, senators can only come back if Walker orders them back or if the Republican-controlled Assembly agreed to hold an extraordinary session. Both of those scenarios are highly unlikely.
The question of who holds the presidency is important because that person is on the Senate organizational committee, which determines which bills are heard and deals with a bevy of administration duties, including the pay of aides. Republicans would continue to hold a 3-2 majority on that committee if Ellis stays as president.
Democrats could hold a session where they would be able to take action on items the Senate controls, such as approving Walker appointments, but could not pass any bills.
Larson, the Democratic senator from Milwaukee, said they will "put a lot of pressure" on Walker to call a special session on jobs.
"The state wants to see us working together to create jobs," he said.
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