GOP keeps control of Wisconsin Senate after union-led recall effort

Democrats picked off seats held by two Wisconsin state senators Tuesday night but failed to capture control of the chamber from Republicans.

Democrats needed to win three of the six seats where Republicans had faced recall elections Tuesday. Republicans held on to four of the seats.

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The close results suggest that while the fight over public employee union rights helped energize the Democratic base, Republicans remain motivated after their 2010 wave election. Turnout was unusually high for both parties, especially for a down-ballot, mid-summer election.

Wisconsin could host some important campaigns in 2012. Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl’s retirement means his seat will likely be in play, and President Obama will probably need to hold the Badger State to win reelection. Democrats also hope they can win one or two House seats in the state; they need to win a net of 24 seats to retake control of the House.

The fight over public workers' right to organize into unions will likely continue to be a major issue through next year's elections in the state, especially if Democrats push to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The GOP’s wins came in Republican-leaning districts. Because Wisconsin state law only allows recalls of elected officials after they have been in office for a full year, all of the Republicans up for reelection had held on in the Democratic wave election of 2008.


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The recall elections came about because Democrats and union members in the state were incensed with Walker’s successful push to strip collective bargaining rights from many state employees. In the swing state, which will be crucial for determining control for both the White House and Congress in 2012, Democrats sought to keep up the momentum generated by last winter’s protests.

Wisconsin gave Obama 56 percent of its vote in 2008, and Democratic presidential candidates have won the state in every election since 1984. But Democrats took a beating there in the last election: Republicans picked up the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House seats in 2010.

With results in one suburban Milwaukee election still uncertain late Tuesday, Democrats accused a Republican county clerk in Waukesha County of vote-tampering in the final district that was called for the GOP. The county was the only one that had not yet reported its vote results as of 1:00 a.m.; in an earlier election a Republican Supreme Court justice gained 7,582 votes in Waukesha County after a major error was detected days after the election.

"The race to determine control of the Wisconsin Senate has fallen in the hands of the Waukesha County clerk, who has already distinguished herself as incompetent, if not worse," said Democratic State Party Chairman Mike Tate. "She is once more tampering with the results of a consequential election and in the next hours we will determine our next course of action. For now, Wisconsin should know that a dark cloud hangs over these important results."

Tate later clarified that the Democratic Party would not pursue charges of voter irregularity.

The seat was declared a win for the Republican incumbent early Wednesday morning.

Big names on both sides were involved in the recall campaigns. Besides the unions and national organizations that spent more than $30 million on the races, Wisconsin politicians eyeing higher office were also active.

Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is rumored to be considering a run against Walker, who must be in office for a full year before he can legally be recalled. Tuesday night’s Democratic victory could make it more likely for Feingold to seek a return to higher office.

Two Democrats who might run for Kohl’s seat, U.S. Reps. Ron Kind and Tammy Baldwin, also spent time helping Democrats running in their districts.

On the Republican side, former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) has been out stumping for the Republican state senators facing recalls. He is likely to run for the U.S. Senate.

Thompson told a Milwaukee NBC affiliate last week that if the Republicans lost control of the state Senate, it would be "a huge step backward for Wisconsin."


—This post was updated at 5:15 a.m.