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'Fake Democrats' Infiltrate Wis. Primaries


Democrats in Wisconsin have a different problem. Last year's fight over union bargaining rights drove them to seek the recall of the state's Republican governor, lieutenant governor and four state senators. Those recall elections are scheduled for June. But some of those races would have been held earlier if Republicans hadn't found a way to delay the elections. The state GOP recruited fake Democrats to force primary elections, a move real Democrats say is illegal. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson has that story.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: To be clear about these fake Democrats, they are really Republicans recruited by the Republican Party to run in Democratic primaries. Republicans are not hiding this fact. Scott Fitzgerald is the Republican leader of the State Senate and faces a recall himself. He says these elections are hardball politics, and these candidates help the GOP fight back.

STATE SENATOR SCOTT FITZGERALD: I've said from the beginning, I'll never take anything off the table when it comes to recall elections because it's so unique and different from anything else we deal with on a regular basis.

KRISTEN CROWELL: We believe that any time a political party tries to thwart the will of the people illegally that there should be recourse.

JOHNSON: That's Kristen Crowell, the executive director of We Are Wisconsin, a union-funded Democratic group that grew out of the recall effort. Crowell says these fake candidates are lying on state election forms, breaking the law and delaying the voting public's right to recall.

CROWELL: The people that are voting, the people that have signed petitions and gone out and worked to create these elections, they don't want to play hardball politics. They want fair, clean elections.

JOHNSON: This entire dispute boils down to timing. In Wisconsin when there's more than one candidate from the same party running in a recall, it forces a primary election. But when there's no primary, a general election happens right away. And that's what stood to happen in four recall races for State Senate. That point was not lost on Republicans. They faced having GOP senators stand against recall on the very same day Democrats were to choose their gubernatorial nominee - not a good scenario for Republicans. Again, Senator Scott Fitzgerald.

FITZGERALD: You got to do the analysis on a statewide gubernatorial Democrat primary and what effect that might have on a Republican running under recall.

JOHNSON: If you take a step back, Republicans are flaunting the very notion of a party primary. And yet, if you're looking for outrage on the ground, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point political scientist Dennis Riley says you might not find it.

DENNIS RILEY: It's frustration on the part of the Democrats, but not surprise.

JOHNSON: Riley says that's because this has happened before. Republicans did the exact same thing to delay recall elections last summer. Democrats knew it could happen again.

RILEY: They more or less expected it this time. They didn't last time. But they more or less expected it this time.

JOHNSON: An attorney for Democrats says the only reason Republicans got away with running fake candidates last time is that nobody challenged them on it. Democrats have filed a challenge this year. Wisconsin's elections board considers it next Tuesday. Republicans say the challenge is just a PR stunt and will not succeed. The fact that this is even being discussed shows how much politics has changed in Wisconsin in just the past year. When Governor Scott Walker introduced his bill to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees, it ignited massive protests at the Wisconsin Capitol.

The bitter partisan divide that was created then continues today. The stakes in these races are as high as can be. The State Senate is currently split down the middle. If Democrats pick up just one seat, they win it all. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.