MADISON, Wis. — A stand by Wisconsin Republicans against a massive effort to oust them from power could reverberate across the country as the battle over union rights and the conservative revolution heads toward the 2012 presidential race.
Democrats succeeded in taking two Wisconsin state Senate seats away from Republican incumbents on Tuesday but fell one short of what they needed to seize majority control of the chamber.
Republicans saw it as a big win for Gov. Scott Walker and a confirmation of his conservative agenda, the hallmark of which was a polarizing proposal taking away most collective bargaining rights from public workers.
“Republicans are going to continue doing what we promised the people of Wisconsin — improve the economy and get Wisconsin moving back in the right direction,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement after the victory.
Walker attempted to strike a bipartisan tone in victory, saying that he reached out to leaders in both parties.
“In the days ahead I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward,” Walker said in a prepared statement.
Democrats and union leaders tried to make the best of the historic GOP wins. There had been only 13 other successful recalls of state-level office holders nationwide since 1913.
“The fact of the matter remains that, fighting on Republican turf, we have begun the work of stopping the Scott Walker agenda,” said Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said voters sent a message that there is a growing movement to reclaim the middle class.
“Let’s be clear, anyway you slice it, this is an unprecedented victory,” he said.
Still, it was far less than what Democrats set out to achieve. And while they still plan to move ahead with recalling Walker, maintaining momentum for that effort which can’t start until November will be difficult.
Sen. Luther Olsen, one of the four Republicans who won, said he hoped the victories would “take the wind out of the recall for Walker, but I’m not sure.”
Two Democratic senators face recall elections next week, but even if they prevail, Republicans would still hold a narrow 17-16 majority.
Four Republican senators held on to their seats Tuesday. They were Olsen and Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez, and Alberta Darling of River Hills. Two Republicans — Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse — were defeated. Former deputy mayor of Oshkosh Jessica King beat Hopper and Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling beat Kapanke.
A ninth senator, Democrat Dave Hansen of Green Bay, won his recall election last month.
Collectively, more than $31 million has been spent on the recalls, largely from outside conservative groups, unions and others.
Republican and Democratic strategists were leery of reading too much into the results heading into next year’s campaign in which Wisconsin is expected to be a key swing state.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the results could provide “some early radar warnings” about the 2012 races.
“At a minimum, we already know that the conservatives are providing energy for progressive to fight back like an angry badger that otherwise may not have existed,” he said.
Lehane said Wisconsin’s tumultuous year since November’s elections has been a microcosm of the current “rollercoaster” era of U.S. politics.
Wisconsin voters had mixed emotions about the necessity of the recalls.
Wayne Boland, 41, a Whitefish Bay man who works in marketing for a medical equipment maker, said he voted for the Republican Darling “not because I entirely agree with everything the Republican Party has done or the governor” but because they’re working toward addressing the state’s problems.
Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in the 2010 election just nine months ago.
Democrats had hoped enough wins in the recalls would have allowed them to block the Republican agenda, but the GOP will hold on to their majorities that have allowed them to rapidly pass bills through the Legislature.
The elections were also closely watched in other states undergoing similar partisan battles.
A coalition of unions and labor-friendly groups fighting a Wisconsin-style collective bargaining overhaul in Ohio said the outcome of the recall elections will have little bearing on whether Ohio’s law is repealed this fall.
The effort in Wisconsin was about recalling specific Republicans who voted for the anti-union bill while the push in Ohio is about repealing the law itself. That makes it difficult to compare the two states, said We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas.
Supporters of the Ohio law also are distancing their state from the fight in Wisconsin.
“We’re not focused on Wisconsin, and Ohioans aren’t looking to another state to tell them where they should stand,” said Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, a group defending the collective bargaining law.
Ohioans will vote Nov. 8 on whether to accept or reject the union-limiting law signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in March that limits bargaining rights for more than 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other government employees.
Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio’s Constitution makes no provision for recalling elected officials.