MADISON, Wis. – Control of the Wisconsin state Senate rested with one Milwaukee-area race that was too close to call Tuesday, as Republicans tried to beat back Democrats stoking a backlash against Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker for their efforts to strip public employees of most union rights.
Democrats needed to win that race, as well as two next week targeting their own incumbents, to wrest majority control away from Republicans. Republicans successfully defended three seats in recall elections and Democrats picked up two. One Democratic incumbent won his recall election last month.
Fueled by millions of dollars from national labor groups, the attempt to remove GOP incumbents served as both a referendum on Walker's conservative revolution and could provide a new gauge of the public mood less than a year after Republicans made sweeping gains in this state and many others.
It was the race pitting Republican Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills against Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch of Whitefish Bay that was too close to call. With 68 percent of precincts reporting, Pasch was ahead 51 percent to 49 percent
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."
Until this year, there had been only 20 attempts since 1913 to recall any of the nation's state lawmakers from office. Just 13 of the efforts were successful.
Winning on Tuesday was Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke, who had been in the Senate since 2004. The other Republican ousted was first-term incumbent Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac, defeated by Democrat Jessica King, the former deputy mayor of Oshkosh.
Republican Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez and Luther Olsen of Ripon all held on to their seats.
Republicans' 19-14 advantage in the Senate dropped to 17-16 with the Kapanke and Hopper losses.
The stakes in Wisconsin 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 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 races next Tuesday target Sens. Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie and Jim Holperin of Conover.