CHICAGO - Months of political rancor and a tsunami of special interest spending come to a head on Tuesday with historic recall votes for Wisconsin state lawmakers that some see as a pointer for the 2012 election.
Control of the Wisconsin state Senate lies in the balance in the largest number of recall elections in U.S. history, which are also being seen as a referendum on newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker's conservative policies.
The high stakes fight has drawn $25 million of spending by special interest groups from both sides aimed at swaying the nine recall races, a nonpartisan watchdog group has said.
"I think to a certain extent it is almost a dry run," said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee government affairs professor and former Democratic lawmaker. "It is almost like an exhibition game or the preseason opener for them."
Victories for Democrats could bolster efforts to launch a recall of Walker next year, while Republican wins could freeze that bid in its tracks and give the national party momentum toward defeating President Barack Obama in 2012.
Republicans rode a wave of election victories last November across the United States and in Wisconsin took control of the state Assembly, the Senate and the governor's office.
Walker led a drive this year to curb the power of public sector unions, cutting at a financial base for Democrats, and arguing that tax-funded workers had to absorb higher healthcare costs and accept cuts to stem deficits.
The moves put a national spotlight on Walker and the Republicans, igniting massive pro-union protests and political fights that led to recall petitions aimed at all lawmakers eligible under state law -- eight senators from each party. Recalls were approved against six Republicans and three Democrats.
The six incumbent Republican senators face challengers on Tuesday. Two incumbent Democrats face Republican challengers on August 16. The third Democratic senator held his seat in July.
Complicating the read of any results on Tuesday's votes will be the sour national mood after a bitter partisan fight from U.S. debt ceiling talks, the downgrade of the U,S, national credit rating on Friday night by Standard & Poor's, and the worst week for the U.S. stock market since 2008.
One thing is certain, the Wisconsin elections will make history. There had been only 20 state-level recall elections in U.S. history before this year. Ten are planned, included one for Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce in November.
A REFERENDUM ON REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR?
Turnout is expected to be much higher than in nonpartisan or special elections. The six districts could go either way.
Democrats need to gain a net three seats to take control of the Senate, which would make it harder for Wisconsin Republicans to enact their social and fiscal priorities.
"I think the nine elections are truly a quasi statewide referendum on Scott Walker and the Republican legislature," Lee said. "They are about every decision, every law they have passed in the last six months."
Candidates said the differences between the parties were clear and few voters they encountered were undecided.
"People feel they've been shut out and there's an extreme agenda coming into Wisconsin from outside interests," said Democratic candidate Jessica King, who is challenging incumbent Republican Senator Randy Hopper.
King lost the 2008 election to Hopper by 163 votes.
Hopper said the Republican budget changes were working to create jobs and Democrats had focused on controversy in his personal life, including his divorce, because they can't show that changes to collective bargaining have hurt the state.
"What we've done in the legislature so far is proving to work," Hopper said. "I believe we're going to solve a lot of our problems by creating more consumers."
Republican Senator Sheila Harsdorf, who is being challenged by Democrat Shelly Moore, said she was elected to "make the tough decisions" and balance the budget without raising taxes.
"When you look at the challenging economy, not just in Wisconsin but across the country ... I think people recognize that we have to get our fiscal house in order," Harsdorf said.
Democratic Representative Jennifer Shilling, who is running against incumbent Republican Senator Dan Kapanke, said Democrats must focus on voter turnout during a vacation week.
"People have indicated they are frustrated with the current leadership," Shilling said, saying Kapanke "did not listen to them over the course of the collective bargaining debate."
Millions of dollars have poured into the election from outside Wisconsin. Candidates alone have spent more than $5 million, with Kapanke and Republican Senator Alberta Darling easily eclipsing the record spending for a state Senate seat.
Darling faces Democratic Representative Sandy Pasch in the Milwaukee area. In the other two races, Republican Senator Luther Olsen faces Democratic Representative Fred Clark and Republican Senator Robert Cowles faces Democrat Nancy Nusbaum.
On the Democratic side, union-supported We Are Wisconsin has raised $9.7 million, while financial support for Republican incumbents has poured in from conservative groups such as Americans For Prosperity and the Club for Growth.
"It is beyond amazing, astounding, stupefying, incredible, jaw-dropping, it is beyond all of that," Lee said of the spending by campaigns and groups. "It's all that, cubed."
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