MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) — 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.
The recall elections in Wisconsin drew national attention with money pouring in from outside groups on both sides to influence the outcome. It’s estimated that total spending may break $40 million on the nine recall races combined.
Democrats saw the recalls as a first step in an effort to roll back the sweeping gains made by Republicans in the 2010 elections in Wisconsin and other states. In the Midwestern state last November, Republicans won a U.S. Senate seat, the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the Wisconsin state legislature.
Walker insisted that curbing government employees’ bargaining rights was necessary to reduce the state’s budget deficit. Democrats claimed the state’s new Republican governor was engaged in a power grab targeting labor unions whose support is essential for Democrats’ election prospects.
The recalls resulted in Democrats picking up two seats through the nine recalls but were unable to wrest majority Senate control away from the Republicans, who now hold 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 the Republican governor’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 Republican Kim Simac of Eagle River, who is a supporter of the grassroots conservative tea party movement which supports small government and low taxes.
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 Republicans maintained their 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.
Wirch 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.
Holperin’ rural district covers Wisconsin’s sprawling north woods.
The nine recall elections in Wisconsin this year were the largest ever in U.S. history. Previously, in nearly 100 years there had been only 20 recall attempts, with just 13 successful.
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.
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.