Wisconsin GOP state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf battles costly recall effort

Sheila Harsdorf and challenger Shelly Moore
Wisconsin state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-Dist. 10, and challenger Shelly Moore debate each other Thursday night at the Wisconsin Public Radio's bureau in Eau Claire.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Television ads are saturating Twin Cities airwaves in what's shaping up to be an expensive recall election of veteran Republican lawmaker Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls. The race is part of a historic series of summer face-offs races across the state triggered by the fight over collective bargaining.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to stick with Harsdorf or elect Democrat Shelly Moore, a schoolteacher and former union official from River Falls.

Newcomer Moore knows taking down Harsdorf won't be easy.

"I'm running against a 23-year incumbent whose brother held the same office before her," Moore said. "I'm running against 34 years of family history and name recognition. Nobody knows me from Adam. I mean, my students know me. I'm a public school teacher."

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But a famous Hollywood actor knows Moore. Someone who works for Morgan Freeman called up Moore's campaign explaining that it was not his voice on an attack ad against her.

The ad was paid for by a group called Citizens for a Strong America. Moore says she's no fan of the ad warfare that has Twin Cities television watchers caught in the crossfire.

"The whole thing, it's so over the top," she said. "If I lived in Minnesota, I would be so sick and tired of those ads."

If elected, Moore says reforming campaign finance laws would be one of her first priorities. But until then, her team of supporters is an equal participant in the ad war.

For her part, Harsdorf, says she's also troubled by the amount of spending in the 10th district.

"This whole unprecedented recall has been driven by a lot of special interests, much of them national special interests who are spending in the millions," she said. "It is troubling to see the amount of money coming in from all across the country to try and influence a state senate race."

Political observers say the amount of cash spent in the race will surpass the previous record of $3 million, a record set when Harsdorf first ran for this Senate seat back in 2000.

Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks election finance, says the irony of all the big-money spending is that the ads are reaching Minnesotans who can't even vote in the election.

"They're using a shotgun to do a rifle's job. They're trying to aim at a very small target, and they're hitting a really massive target with their advertising," he said. "That's a tremendous amount of money wasted. But I don't think these groups care."

Campaign finance reports submitted in early August show Harsdorf is winning the fund-raising battle. Her campaign reported $437,181 in donations this year, compared to Moore's $338,038. But those figures will be outspent by interest groups that are pouring cash into the race, McCabe said.

At the third and final debate yesterday in Eau Claire, Moore and Harsdorf faced off during a live call-in show hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Moore said she was riding a wave of grassroots momentum following Wisconsin's contentious budget battle. The former union leader says the stripping of collective bargaining rights is not really what the debate is about.

"It may have started some of the initial protest," she said. "It is not what sustained the protest."

She says constituents feel shut out of the process. And during the debate, one caller echoed that complaint, challenging Harsdorf for not being accessible.

"You went drastically over to the right in your lockstep with Walker," the caller said. "You refused to acknowledge the fiscal effects to everybody in this district that you've just hit. And I want to know why you never made yourself available to the people in your district."

Harsdorf says she's held numerous town-hall meetings. After the debate, she also defended herself from claims that she's somehow changed.

"When people say that I've changed, they can't win on the issues, so they attack me personally," she said. "I have always stood for controlling spending, controlling taxes and growing jobs in our state. It was tough choices, and we were able to do that."

Political observers say the race is too close to call. The latest poll, paid for by the Democratic Party, shows the Republican Harsdorf ahead by three points, within the poll's margin of error.