Robert Cowles recall, Wisconsin State Senate (2011)

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Robert Cowles

Senators Facing Recall
Robert CowlesAlberta DarlingSheila HarsdorfDave HansenJim HolperinRandy HopperDan KapankeLuther OlsenRobert Wirch

Other Recall Information
Recalls by YearRecall Law in WisconsinRecall laws in other statesRecalls in Wisconsin2011 Scott Walker Budget Repair BillProtests over Budget Repair BillWisconsin Government Accountability BoardElection Results
A campaign to recall Robert Cowles, a member of the Republican Party, from his elected position representing District 2 in the Wisconsin State Senate took place in 2011. Cowles defeated Nancy Nusbaum in the recall election on August 9, 2011.

Path to the ballot

About 26,000 signatures to recall Cowles were filed on April 28, 2011. This was the ninth set of signatures filed in the sixteen different state senate recalls that were attempted in Wisconsin.[1] Challenges to the petition were reviewed by the board on May 31.[2] At the meeting the GAB rejected most of the challenges, giving the go ahead for a recall election.[3] The Board officially certified the recall against Cowles on June 3, effectively setting the election for July 12. Since more than one opposing candidate filed, a primary was held on July 12, with the recall on August 9.

Location of Wisconsin State Senate District 2
Map of Wisconsin Senate District 2

Jonah Lenss, a volunteer who collected signatures for the recall campaign, said he got involved because of Cowles' vote for Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill. Lenss called the campaign polarizing, stating, "You pretty rarely went to a door and somebody said 'Boy, I really just can't make a decision.' They were either 'give me that thing, I'm going to sign it' or they'd slam the door in your face. There was no middle of the road."[4]


Former Brown County board member Rich Langan announced on May 10 that he would run against Cowles in a recall election.[5], but dropped out days later. He was replaced by Nancy Nusbaum.[6] Cowles was unopposed in 2008 and had not faced a Democratic challenger in over a decade. Prior to Langan's announcement there was a great deal of speculation over who would run, including Sam Dunlop and Mert Summers - both Democrats who lost bids for the Assembly in 2010.[7]

Former Republican state Rep. Otto Junkermann ran as a Democrat against Nusbaum in order to trigger a primary and delay the actual recall an additional four weeks. Junkermann, when asked if he was a "spoiler candidate," replied, “I don’t know how I could avoid being considered that.” Nusbaum called the move "a mockery of the democratic process," and "a sign of desperation."[8]


Nusbaum accused Cowles on July 26 of avoiding a debate on the issues, stateding, "The people of the 2nd Senate District deserve to hear from their Senator, rather than face an empty podium. Whether Senator Cowles chooses to join me or not, I will hold forums around the state to ensure voters have the opportunity to hear directly from me, despite his cowardly actions."[9] Cowles said that Nusbaum never responded to a letter about debates he sent her over a month prior, and that she purposely accepted a debate on August 1 when he would be in a special legislative session and unable to attend.[10]

Following weeks of accusations over why they were not debating, incumbent Cowles and Nusbaum finally scheduled one debate to take place August 8, one day before the recall. It was to be hosted by the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and moderated by the League of Women Voters of Greater Green Bay.[11] Nusbaum ended up canceling the debate due to the death of her mother.

July 12 Democratic Primary

Nusbaum easily defeated Junkermann in the primary.

July 12 Democratic primary[12]
Candidates Votes Percent
Nancy Nusbaum Approveda 14,197 65.04%
Otto Junkermann 7,578 34.72%
Scattering 54 0.25%
  • Mert Summers Note: Summers filed nomination papers with sufficient signatures but did not file final papers to be on the ballot.[13]

August 9 recall

August 9 Recall - District 2[14]
Candidates Votes Percent
Robert Cowles (R) Green check mark transparent.png 27,037 57.44%
Nancy Nusbaum (D) 19,974 42.43%
Scattering 62 .13%

Ads relating to the campaign

Petition challenged

Cowles submitted a written challenge to the recall petition on May 6, which stated it "must be rejected in its entirety as insufficient."[15] In the challenge, Cowles argued that it should be rejected because the recall petitioner did not follow proper procedure for meeting prerequisites and did not comply with statutory requirements. At a meeting on May 31, the Board rejected most of the challenges, giving the go ahead for the recall election.

Certification challenge delays

On May 27, 2011, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board announced it would be unable to consider the recall petitions for the three Democratic incumbents at the May 31, 2011 meeting. Citing "numerous factual and legal issues," the Board said in its statement that more time was needed to ensure that a complete record would be available for examination -- particularly since the decision would likely be appealed to the courts.[16]

In a release, GAB officials said they did not expect to be able to hold a hearing on the recalls of Democratic incumbents until the week of June 6, which raised potential legal issues, as the initial extension granted to GAB for certification required it to ultimately make determinations before June 3.[16]

The board went ahead with hearings on May 31 for the recalls of Republican incumbents Sheila Harsdorf, Cowles and Alberta Darling.[17] Officials released a 125-page memo on May 27, 2011 concerning the signatures and legal challenges.

The GAB filed a brief on June 1 asking the court for a one-week extension, which would give them until June 10 to finish working on the three Democratic recalls. The case was heard in Dane County Court at 1:30 pm on Friday, June 3.[18][19] Dane County Judge John Markson ruled that there was good cause for the extension, and that the GAB did not violate any rules by taking up the petitions out of order.[20]

Ultimately, on June 8, after nearly 9 hours of deliberations, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board certified the recalls of three Democratic incumbents and set an initial election for July 19.[21]

Legal challenges

Attorneys for Dan Kapanke, Luther Olsen, and Randy Hopper filed petitions in Dane County Court on May 31 seeking to stop the recall elections against them. Their argument was based on improperly filed paperwork, similar to the argument they previously used before the GAB and saw rejected. The court petitions alleged that recall petitioners did not correctly register with the GAB and thus the 60-day period to collect signatures did not start, meaning every signature collected was "dated outside the circulation period" and therefore invalid.[22]

On June 7, Alberta Darling, Sheila Harsdorf, and Cowles joined their fellow Republicans in filing suit against the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board in Dane County Circuit Court. Their lawsuits alleged that signatures on the recall petitions were invalid because of improperly filed paperwork.[23][24] Jeremy Levinson, attorney for the Democrats, filed motions with the court on June 14, asking them to throw out the Republican's "meritless" challenges.[25]

After hearing arguments on July 8, Judge Richard Niess ruled that all of the nine recalls should proceed, saying that election officials had already thoroughly and correctly addressed the complaints.[26]

Campaign contributions

As of June 2, 2011, Robert Cowles had not yet filed any reports regarding his own campaign finance. His first report was submitted July 5.

Robert Cowles Campaign Finance Reports (GAB ID No. 0100789)
Report Date Filed Beginning Balance Total Contributions (Expenditures) Cash on Hand
Post-Election[27] August 2, 2011 $108,816.62 $10,500.00 $(0.00) $109,316.62
Special Pre-Election[28] August 1, 2011 $63,818.28 $64,824.55 $(29,826.21) $98,816.62
July Continuing[29] July 5, 2011 $20,271.40 $100,521.67 $(58,624.79) $62,168.28

Official reports

The Committee to Recall Cowles filed two reports. Of the $145,963.60 collected as of the April 25, 2011 filing, all but $250.00 had come from various PACs.

Committee to Recall Cowles Campaign Finance Reports (GAB ID No. 600011)
Report Date Filed Beginning Balance Total Contributions (Expenditures) Cash on Hand
Special Pre-Election[30] April 25, 2011 $490.00 $88,172.54 $(88,447.99) $214.55
Spring Pre-Election[31] March 28, 2011 $0.00 $57,791.06 $(57,301.06) $490.00


Conducted July 21-24

August 9, 2011 Recall - District 2 - Daily Kos/PPP Poll
Candidate Party Percent
Robert Cowles Ends.png Republican 51%
Nancy Nusbaum Electiondot.png Democratic 47%
Undecided 2%

Additional reading

Official documents

The following documents are attributed to the Cowles recall and have been publicized by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.


See also

External links


  1. ABC 2 WBAY, "Democrats Turn in 26,000 Signatures to Recall Senator Cowles", April 28, 2011
  2. Talking Points Memo, "Wis. Elections Staff Recommend Recalls Against Three GOPers," May 20, 2011
  3. 620 WTMJ, "GAB clears way for Cowles recall election," May 31, 2011
  4. Ashland Current, "State Headlines From Wisconsin Public Radio, April 30," April 30, 2011
  5. WFRV-TV, "Wis. GOP senator has Dem challenger for recall," May 10, 2011
  6. FOX 11, "Nusbaum to challenge Cowles in recall," May 16, 2011
  7. Green Bay Press Gazette, "Who will face Sen. Cowles in a recall race?," April 26, 2011
  8. Green Bay Press Gazette, "Former GOP lawmaker to run as Democrat in Cowles' recall race," June 8, 2011
  9. WisPolitics, “Nusbaum Campaign: Nusbaum demands Senator Cowles explain refusal to address issues facing northeast Wisconsin residents,” July 26, 2011
  10. WBAY, “Nusbaum Accuses Sen. Cowles of Dodging Debate,” July 26, 2011
  11. Green Bay Press Gazette, "Cowles, Nusbaum agree to debate day before Senate recall election," August 2, 2011
  12. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board "July 12 primary election results District 2," accessed August 11, 2011
  13. WisPolitics, "WisDems: Dems to end placeholder candidacies in recall elections," June 17, 2011
  14. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "District 2 Recall Election Results," accessed August 19, 2011
  15. Cowles challenge to recall petition, May 6, 2011
  16. 16.0 16.1 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Review of recall petitions going slowly; July 12 election in doubt," May 27, 2011
  17. Greenfield Reporter "Wis. election officials delay decision on recall petitions for Dems, may need date change," May 27, 2011
  18. WisPolitics, "GAB formally asks judge for more time to consider recall petitions against Dems," June 1, 2011
  19. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "State board requests more time to review recall petitions," June 1, 2011
  20. NBC 15, "UPDATE: Judge Grants Week Extension for Recall Review," June 3, 2011
  21. WISN, “GAB Certifies 3 Democratic Recall Elections,” June 8, 2011
  22. Wisconsin State Journal, "Recall-targeted GOP senators challenge validity of petitions," June 1, 2011
  23. Superior Telegram, "GOP planning lawsuit over Republican senator recalls," June 8, 2011
  24. Leader-Telegram, "Harsdorf, other GOP senators sue to stop recalls," June 9, 2011
  25., "Recall campaigns ask court to throw out 'meritless' challenges," June 14. 2011
  26. WUWM, "Judges Rules Senate Recalls Can Proceed," July 8, 2011
  27. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "CAMPAIGN FINANCE REPORT: STATE OF WISCONSIN: GAB-2: Cowles for Senate," August 2, 2011
  28. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "CAMPAIGN FINANCE REPORT: STATE OF WISCONSIN: GAB-2: Cowles for Senate," August 1, 2011
  29. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "CAMPAIGN FINANCE REPORT: STATE OF WISCONSIN: GAB-2: Cowles for Senate," July 5, 2011
  30. n Government Accountability Board, "CAMPAIGN FINANCE REPORT: STATE OF WISCONSIN GAB-2: Committee to Recall Cowles", April 25, 2011
  31. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "CAMPAIGN FINANCE REPORT: STATE OF WISCONSIN GAB-2: Committee to Recall Cowles", March 28, 2011