Two Democratic Wisconsin state senators targeted by Republicans survived their elections Tuesday, ending a tumultuous summer of recalls spurred by anger over how lawmakers reacted to Gov. Scott Walker's proposal curbing collective bargaining rights of public workers.
Democrats picked up two seats through the nine recalls but were unable to wrest majority Senate control away from the GOP, which now holds a narrow 17-16 majority. Before the recalls, Republicans had a 19-14 edge in the chamber.
The two senators facing recall Tuesday were among the 14 senators who fled the state in February in opposition to Walker's proposal which passed despite their absence and has been held up by the state Supreme Court.
Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie defeated Kenosha attorney Jonathan Steitz, and Sen. Jim Holperin of Conover beat tea party Republican Kim Simac of Eagle River.
A third Democrat won a recall election last month. Two Republicans were defeated in six recall elections last week.
Even though they remain in the minority, Democrats were savoring Tuesday's victories.
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said Democrats have "fundamentally changed the face of power in the Wisconsin Legislature" through the recalls. Even though Republicans remain in the majority, Tate said Democrats' picking up two seats and making gains in Republican districts sets the table for big wins next year.
"It's really hard to go five for nine and not be pleased of the progress that we made," he said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement that he was proud the GOP maintained its majority through the recalls. He said Tuesday's results were a rejection of the recall process.
"The problems facing our state are too serious for these political games, and the Democrats' permanent campaign cycle," Fitzgerald said in the statement. "The Democrats need to start working with the other side of the aisle, not just moving on to their next recall target."
Walker pledged last week to reach out to Democratic leaders to find proposals they could work on together, but his overtures were met with skepticism by the Democrats still stung by his pushing through of the collective bargaining bill without compromises.
Holperin, who won with 54 percent of the vote based on unofficial results, said the election showed that not everyone disapproved of Democrats leaving the state during the heated collective bargaining debate.
"Voters apparently think that was more of a good thing than a bad thing," he said.
Holperin is the first state-level elected official in U.S. history to have faced two recall attempts. He survived one in 1990 as a member of the state Assembly after he was targeted for supporting tribal spearfishing rights.
In that race, Holperin spent $56,000. So far this time he's spent at least $319,000 and combined with spending from outside groups and his tea party Republican opponent Kim Simac, total spending is estimated to be at least $4.5 million.
It's estimated that total spending may break $40 million on the nine recall races combined.
Wirch, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1992 and the Senate in 1996, won with 58 percent of the vote based on unofficial results. His district covers the city of Kenosha and surrounding area in southeast Wisconsin near the Illinois border.
Robert Merton, 73, a retired firefighter from Pleasant Prairie, said he voted for Wirch on Tuesday because the senator has always stood up for unions and middle-class values.
"He's done a good job," Merton said. "He's always been there for us."
But another Pleasant Prairie voter said he couldn't forgive Wirch for fleeing the state rather than staying to express his objections in Madison. Don Camacho, a 61-year-old sales representative in the manufacturing industry, said he voted for Wirch in the past but this time chose Steitz because Wirch abandoned his constituents.
"I was (ticked) off at him for leaving the state," Camacho said. "He got elected to do a job. He should have done it."
Holperin, who served 12 years in the Assembly between 1983 and 1995 before being elected to the Senate in 2008, defeated Simac of Eagle River. She founded the Northwoods Patriots and would be the first tea party candidate elected to the Wisconsin state Senate if she wins.
The rural district covers Wisconsin's sprawling north woods.
Three Lakes resident Nicole Senter, 32, said she voted for Holperin because she's satisfied with the job he has done.
"He's not as liberal as I'd like him to be," said Senter, a bank employee. "But for up here he's moderate enough to help everyone, not just the unions like some people seem to think. His interest is in the north woods."
Simac supporter Shirley Kufeldt disagreed. The retired officer worker from Conover said she voted for the challenger because Holperin showed "cowardice" by leaving the state.
"I have seen Kim Simac as a consensus builder," Kufeldt said. "I've never seen that from Jim Holperin."
The nine recall elections in Wisconsin this year were the largest ever in the nation's history. Previously, in nearly 100 years there had been only 20 recall attempts, including Holperin's, with just 13 successful.
With the ouster of two Republicans last week, of the 15 state-level office holders recalled nationwide, four of them have been from Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Democratic party leaders say they are moving ahead with plans to mount an effort to recall Walker next year, even though Republicans retained their majority in the Senate.