Wisconsin residents rejected a Democratic attempt to grab control of the state Senate when they voted to retain four of six Republicans in recall elections Tuesday.
The GOP wins, which dropped the Republican majority in the Senate from 19-16 to 17-14, still leave the party in control of that body, as well as the state Assembly. They provided a victory to freshman Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose budget-cutting measures had sparked controversy in February and led to recall movements throughout the state.
The results also could be interpreted as at least somewhat of a rejection for President Barack Obama, whose own political operatives had traveled to the Badger State to gin up support for the Democratic candidates.
And the victories could send a message to 2012: Observers speculated widely in advance of the elections that, if Democrats could grab control of the Senate, it would be a death knell for Republicans nationwide, while a GOP retention of political power would advance the conservative agenda.
Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political scientist and co-founder of pollster.com, had told the La Crosse Tribune just days before the recall votes that the outcomes would set a national pattern.
"Both sides see this as a test of a new policy direction of the Republican party nationally. They see broad implications elsewhere," Franklin said. "If [Walker's agenda] succeeds here by not flipping the Senate, it gives a real boost to governors elsewhere to continue to pursue that. If the Senate flips, it's a rebuke of those policies."
The recall elections for the six Republicans aimed to punish them for voting for Walker’s budget measures, which included restrictions on public employees’ collective bargaining.
Republican incumbents Alberta Darling, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, and Robert Cowles survived the recalls. Democrats took two seats. Rep. Jennifer Shilling defeated Sen. Dan Kapanke, and Rep. Jessica King beat Sen. Randy Hopper.
The GOP successes render moot the effect of Aug. 16 recall election of two Democrat senators. They and another Democrat face recalls in retaliation for their fleeing the state to thwart votes on Walker’s budget proposals.
The recalls drew national attention and millions of dollars in expenditures — some say the total tab could be $40 million because the stakes were so high and the arguments, volatile. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), insisted in the run-up to the election that GOP victories were necessary to block unions from “hijacking” the state.
Some Democrats contended Tuesday night that their wins in two of the elections represented a victory of sorts for the anti-Walker movement. But University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin disagreed.
"I don't think there's such a thing as a moral victory," Franklin told the La Crosse Tribune. "You either pick up the three seats and take control or you fall short."
Democrats also maintained that they are not swayed from the ultimate goal of recalling Walker, although state law wouldn’t allow such a move until he has been in office for a year.
Walker declined to comment on that issue, although his office released a statement early Wednesday morning, shortly after Darling retained her seat in arguably the most contentious of the six races, as she is regarded as a key player for Walker.
“Last November, the voters sent a message that they wanted fiscal responsibility and a focus on jobs,” Walker said. “In our first months in office, we balanced a $3.6 billion deficit and our state created 39,000 new jobs. It’s clear the voters also want us to work together to grow jobs and improve our state.
“With that in mind, earlier this evening I reached out to the leadership of both the Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly and State Senate. I shared with them that I believe we can work together to grow jobs and improve our state. In the days ahead I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward.”
Observers looking backward at these recall races are astounded at the financial outlays they commanded. The total is approaching $40 million, by some estimates, with the overwhelming majority of that coming from outside donations. The tally is nearly double the combined spending on all 116 of state legislative races in November, according to some estimates.
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