Few—if any—observers in or out of Wisconsin expected the nationally watched recall elections for six state senate seats to turn out the way they did last night. With more than $28 million nationwide flowing into the Badger State, and the Republicans’ 19-to-14-seat majority in jeopardy, three of the six GOP senators held onto their seats against hard-hitting Democratic challengers, and did so with relative ease. But Democrats did manage to unseat Republican Senators Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke, meaning that control of the senate hinged on the outcome of the sixth and closest race of all.
By midnight in Wisconsin, after a long night of results that seesawed in the Milwaukee-area’s 8th District, Republican Sen. Alberta Darling claimed victory. Darling, a close ally of conservative Gov. Scott Walker and co-chairman of the committee that sent his controversial budget to the senate floor, had won 54% of the vote over liberal Democrat and two-term State Rep. Sandy Pasch. If the 67-year-old Darling’s victory holds up (and threats of legal challenges by State Democratic Chairman Mike Tate go nowhere), Republicans will have clung to a majority in the senate of 17 to 16.
But the outcome of the six contests last night unarguably transcends the boundaries of the Badger State. Had Democrats won a majority in the senate last night, they would have not only dealt a major blow to Walker’s conservative agenda, but set the stage for a recall of the governor himself in January (under Wisconsin law, a governor cannot be the subject of a recall until he has been in office at least one year). Coupled with a Democratic takeover of the senate last night, a recall of Walker would have clearly energized Democrats nationwide—critical in a presidential year.
Even more significantly in terms of national politics, pundits and pols saw a Democratic win in Wisconsin on Tuesday as igniting movements in the 18 other states that permit recalls to overturn control of legislative chambers or take out governors in states where conservative policy is being implemented. Already in Michigan, liberal forces are mobilizing behind a campaign to gather signatures and recall Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and eight GOP state legislators who supported his budget that cuts back state pensions.
But with Republicans hanging on to the senate, talk of recalling Walker has now dimmed, and liberals in other states may be having second thoughts after investing so much in the recall process and falling short in Wisconsin.
In what veteran GOP consultant Scott Becher described as “cherry-picking vulnerable Republican senators,” Democrats gathered enough signatures on petitions to secure recall elections against the six Republican senators who had had the closest calls in their last trip to the ballot box. Sen. Randy Hopper of Oshkosh, who had last won reelection by less than 200 votes and had since gone through a public divorce, faced Democrat Jessica King in a district with two prisons and a university. King won by a margin of 52%. Veteran Sen. Dan Kapanke was downed by Democratic State Rep. Jennifer Shilling in the LaCrosse-area district that had given Barack Obama 61% of the vote. In both cases, Republican incumbents were pilloried by Democratic challengers for supporting Walker’s landmark legislation limiting collective bargaining for certain state employees, and his budget that cut $800,000,000 from public education and $1 billion in aid to localities.
But in the other four districts, Republicans were similarly attacked as allies of Walker and his conservative agenda and, in three of the four races, GOP incumbents overcame their opponents rather handily. In Darling’s photo-finish triumph in Milwaukee County (where Walker was county executive before winning the governorship last year), the GOP incumbent never backed down from her close association with the governor and with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.), whose plan to reform Medicare was tied to Darling by Democrats (even though the state senator would never have to vote on it).
The Wisconsin saga is not over yet. Next Tuesday, Republicans get their turn at trying to take out incumbent Democrats in two Senate districts. For now, however, one can almost hear a collective sigh of relief and something of a cry of triumph from Republicans from Wisconsin to Washington D.C.