MILWAUKEE – A Wisconsin state senator survived a recall election Tuesday that gave voters the most direct opportunity yet to react to a Republican-backed law that stripped most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen defeated Republican recall organizer David VanderLeest with 69 percent of the vote with 65 percent of precincts reporting, according to unofficial results Tuesday night.
Hansen was the first of nine state senators scheduled for recall elections to face voters amid the fallout from the bitter fight surrounding Republican Gov. Scott Walker's collective-bargaining plan, which attracted national attention and tens of thousands of protesters to the Wisconsin Capitol earlier this year.
The other two Democrats facing recalls were tracking Republican primaries to find out who they'll face during elections next month, when six Republicans also will face recall elections.
The stakes of the elections are high: If Democrats pick up a net of three seats, they'll retake control of the state Senate and gain key momentum in their efforts to recall Walker next year.
The Republicans were targeted for supporting Walker's collective-bargaining law, which survived a court challenge after eventually passing the GOP-controlled Legislature. The three Democrats are being targeted because they and their Democratic colleagues fled Wisconsin for three weeks to prevent a vote on the measure.
Hansen was the first to face a general election because his challenger had no opposition from his own party, meaning there was no primary.
Gail Rose, a 34-year-old credit-union worker from Suamico, a town north of Green Bay, said she voted for Hansen on Tuesday because his decision to leave the state showed he was willing to stand up to Republican "bullying."
"He stuck up for us," she said. "He stood up for the people who voted for him. I like that."
Hansen entered his race with a major cash advantage, raising $318,000 since April, while VanderLeest raised $2,000. VanderLeest also could be vulnerable because of a criminal record that included convictions in 2006 on two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct.
Dennis Arcand, a retired postal worker from Green Bay, said VanderLeest's legal issues didn't stop him from voting for the Republican challenger.
"I believe he's on the right side of the issue of getting the budget under control," said Arcand, 55. "I think Dave Hansen's a good guy, but on collective bargaining and the budget, that's why I voted for Mr. VanderLeest."
VanderLeest has said the race should focus on the issues. Hansen said he wasn't drawing attention to his opponent's run-ins with the law because he wanted to keep his campaign positive.
Kris Teske, an election specialist for the city of Green Bay, said local polling sites were seeing a steady stream of voters. State election officials said there were no immediate reports of voting problems or irregularities.