Six Wisconsin senators fought Tuesday to keep their jobs in a recall election, trying to beat back Democratic challengers who stoked a political backlash against Republican Gov. Scott Walker for his efforts to strip public employees of most union rights.
Fueled by millions of dollars from national labor groups, the attempt to remove GOP incumbents could shift control of the Wisconsin Senate to Democrats and provide a new gauge of the public mood less than a year after Republicans made sweeping gains in this state and many others.
Turnout was strong in the morning and steady in the afternoon in communities like Whitefish Bay, Menomonee Falls and Shorewood, where Sen. Alberta Darling was one of six Republicans trying to hold onto her seat.
Tony Spencer, a 36-year-old laid-off carpenter from Shorewood, voted for Darling's challenger, Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch.
"I'm in a private union, so they haven't necessarily come after me," Spencer said. "But everybody should have the right to be in a union. I came out to stop all the union-bashing stuff."
John Gill, 45, of Menomonee Falls, voted for Darling and questioned the opposition's anti-GOP rhetoric, which went far beyond collective bargaining.
"This was all supposed to be about the workers' rights, so to speak. But that has not been brought up one time. It's all been misleading, the attack ads, things like that," Gill said. "The one reason they started this recall, they didn't bring up once."
Besides the six Republicans on Tuesday's ballot, two Democratic incumbents face recalls next week. A third Democrat survived a recall attempt last month.
Republicans hold a 19-14 advantage in the Senate, so Democrats need to win five of the eight elections to take control.
If the Democrats win only one or two on Tuesday, they cannot take control. If they win three or four, control hinges on the outcome of next week's recalls. If they win at least five, they will take control of the Senate no matter what happens next week.
Until this year, there had been only 20 attempts nationally since 1913 to recall state lawmakers from office. Just 13 of them were successful.
The stakes were clearly much larger than control of the Senate. The recall election will also help determine whether the Republican revolution led by Walker regains momentum or suffers a major setback. Both parties also were testing messages ahead of the 2012 presidential race, in which Wisconsin was expected to be an important swing state.
Republican and Democratic strategists were leery of reading too much into the results heading into next year's campaign.
The recall effort helped stir passions in the Democratic base "in ways we might never have been able to achieve on our own," said Roy Temple, a Democratic political consultant with extensive experience in the Midwest. But, he said, that doesn't mean the recall can offer much more than hints about broader trends.
"Wisconsin was a swing state before, and it will be after," Temple said. "Maybe (the recall) is a sign of strong intensity, and that's not meaningless, but it's not predictive."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the party was "all in" to win the races. A coalition of national unions spent millions on attack ads and other campaign activity to wrest seats from the Republicans. Conservative groups also spent millions.
It all amounted to a summer unlike any other in Wisconsin. More than $31 million was estimated to have been spent on the nine recall efforts, rivaling the $37 million spent on last year's governor's race.
"I feel that a lot of people didn't get their way, threw a crybaby fit and decided to have a recall. The majority of Wisconsin already voted," said 43-year-old Ross Birkigt of Menomonee Falls. "It's a shame that all of sudden this happens and that a lot of special-interest money gets poured into it. I'm kind getting sick of seeing this stuff on TV every single minute.
Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office in the 2010 election just nine months ago.
The Legislature that had been approving Republican-backed bills in rapid succession and with great ease will likely grind to a halt if Democrats win back the Senate. They would then be able to block anything from passage without a bipartisan agreement.
Any newly elected senator will take office within 15 days, a brief window in which Republican Senate leaders could call a lame-duck session if they are about to lose control.
The five other Republican incumbents facing recalls on Tuesday are Sens. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac, Luther Olsen of Ripon, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse.
The races next Tuesday target Sens. Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie and Jim Holperin of Conover.