Two Republican state senators lost their seats in recall elections around Wisconsin on Tuesday, but Republicans maintained their control of the State Senate, ultimately handing a defeat to union groups and Democrats who had spent months and millions of dollars trying to wrestle away at least some of the state’s political power.
Six incumbent GOP state senators were forced to defend their seats on Tuesday in historic recall elections. The efforts to change the makeup of the state Senate came after Republicans passed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) controversial measure stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
Walker, who was elected in November with strong support from tea party activists, can’t be recalled until after he serves a year in office.
Walker set off a firestorm in January when he moved to curtail the collective bargaining rights of most state employees. With majorities in both houses of the Legislature, Walker and his GOP allies voted to limit raises for public employees except police and firefighters to the rate of inflation, bar unions from deducting dues from workers’ paychecks and force them to hold a new certification vote every year.
Republicans insisted that the legislation was necessary to control skyrocketing public employee benefit costs and close a budget shortfall, while Democrats called it an attempt to gut public-sector labor unions, one of their core constituencies. The state Supreme Court upheld the legislation in June.
Although two of the Republicans — Senators Dan Kapanke of La Crosse and Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac — were removed by Democratic challengers on Tuesday before the ends of their terms in office, Republicans still hold a majority — now 17 to 16 — over Democrats in the Senate. Until Tuesday, Republicans had dominated with a 19 to 14 majority, but with six recall elections in a single day, the damage for Republicans could have been far worse, and Democrats and some national labor groups had hoped it would be.
Democratic challenger Jennifer Shilling then beat incumbent state Sen. Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse), who was considered the most vulnerable candidate because of the large Democratic presence in his district.
In one of the most interesting races of the night, Democrat Jessica King beat state Sen. Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac). It was déjà vu for the voters in the district: In 2008, King and Hopper also ran against each other, but in that contest, Hopper beat his opponent by just 163 votes.
The final race of the night wasn’t called until after midnight, due in part to late results from Waukesha County, whose clerk, Kathy Nickolaus, botched the results in the state Supreme Court race in April. State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) managed to hold on to her seat.
Tate accused Nickolaus — who has a long history of errors — of “tampering with the results,” although he later backed down and said the party “will not pursue questions of irregularities.”
Republicans have countered with their own recall attempts against three Democrats. One of them survived a challenge in July, while two others will be on the ballot next week.
Two Senate Democrats also face recall elections next week — one more chapter in the same collective bargaining rights battle — but given the results on Tuesday, those races now cannot affect which party controls the State Senate, the question that had always been the ultimate concern on both sides. If anything, Republicans could now increase their hold next week.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus applauded the results of the Tuesday vote.
“Today, Wisconsin voters rejected the reckless spending of Wisconsin Democrats and the downgrade-inducing policies of their Washington counterparts. They have given their seal of approval to Republicans’ successful efforts to balance the budget and ensure a healthy economy,” Priebus said.
Even though Democrats weren’t able to take back one of the chambers of the legislature, they touted the fact that voters ousted two incumbent Republicans as a major victory.
“The fact we’ve accomplished as much in six months as had been achieved in the 85 years since recalls were put in the Wisconsin state Constitution is a stunning rebuke to Scott Walker’s extreme attacks on middle class working families,” said Kelly Steele, spokesman for the labor-backed coalition We Are Wisconsin.
“On Tuesday night, Wisconsin spoke loud and clear with the recall of two entrenched Republicans. … 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 Chair Mike Tate in a statement.
In the election on Tuesday, four Republicans held onto their jobs, including Senators Robert Cowles of Green Bay, Luther Olsen of Ripon and Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls. The counting of votes in a challenge to Senator Alberta Darling, who is the powerful Republican co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and someone the Democratic Party’s state chairman last week described as the “crown jewel of our recall efforts,” dragged into the early hours of Wednesday; ultimately, Ms. Darling was deemed the winner, preliminary results from The Associated Press showed.
While Democrats would not have been able to roll back the union restrictions with control of only one chamber of the Legislature, they would have been able to block any of Walker’s other initiatives.
Tea Party Express Chief Strategist Sal Russo said he was pleased about the vote. “The importance of those achievements cannot be overstated,” Russo said. “Wisconsin has set an example that the Nation as a whole should follow.” [via The New York Times, CNN and Huffpost]