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Associated Press/Photo by Rory O'Driscoll (La Cross Tribune)

More bark than bite

Politics | Voters keep Wisconsin Republicans in control of the Senate, despite outcry from labor unions

Wisconsin Democrats and labor unions did not secure the rebuke they hoped for in elections Tuesday to recall six state senators, all Republicans who voted for a bill that cut state employees' pensions and collective bargaining rights.

Democrats won two seats out of the six, one shy of the three seats needed for them to take back the majority in the state Senate. Next Tuesday two Democratic state senators will face their own recall elections. Republicans now have a 17-16 majority in the Senate.

The Wisconsin Republicans' success came despite a flood of outside spending from labor unions, and bodes well for Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who could face his own recall next year, and whose bill reforming public labor union laws triggered the petitions for recall elections. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Walker delivered a bland statement with no hint of triumph. "In the days ahead I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward," he said. After the results came in, the state Democratic party chairman Mike Tate told the election night party crowds, "We will not stop, we will not rest until we recall Scott Walker from the state of Wisconsin."

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Walker has already won a larger political battle. On the day of the election, he signed redistricting legislation that the Republican legislature passed in July, putting in place new maps that mean Democrats are likely to have a tougher time winning back seats in 2012. The maps are still subject to court challenges. And his budget measures, which drew so much controversy, are showing success in balancing the books in the education sector. Walker had to close a $3 billion budget gap in the state's overall budget.

The election results are a setback for unions' political aspirations after they had so forcefully championed their cause during the spring budget debates, filling up the state capitol with protestors who camped for weeks on end. The outpouring continued with the recall campaigns: Outside groups on both sides put $25 million into these races, and most of Democrats' funding came from unions. During the campaigns, Democrats called the votes a referendum on the legislature's decision to cut pensions and collective bargaining rights, but at the end of Tuesday evening, Republicans were calling it a referendum-which they won.

Republicans may have lost some of their support, but only marginally. Of the two Republicans who lost, one, Dan Kapanke, was expected to lose his Democrat-leaning district. Another, Randy Hopper, is under a cloud of accusations that he was having an affair with a staffer. He lost by a thin margin. Voter turnout was reported to be as high as the governor's race last year. In 2008, the six districts voted for President Barack Obama, and in 2010, Walker won the districts by a wider margin.

In April unions also lost a state Supreme Court race, typically a routine affair, after trying to turn it into a rebuke of Walker's bill. They-as along with conservative outside groups-dumped money into the race, but the conservative justice, David Prosser, won reelection.

And next Tuesday two Democratic state senators, part of the group that fled the state to try to deny Republicans a quorum to vote on the budget bill, will see whether they, too, still have their voters' affections.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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