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GOP holds three seats in Wisconsin recall elections

August 09, 2011|By Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune
(Rick Wood / AP Photo/Milwaukee…)

Reporting from Milwaukee — Republicans swept three races as they battled Democrats on Tuesday for control of the Wisconsin Senate as voters went to the polls in recall elections that both sides have said are a precursor for next year's fight for the White House and Congress.

Six Republican incumbents faced Democratic challengers in Senate districts scattered around the state. Voter turnout was reported to be heavy, with some county clerks predicting it would match levels seen in presidential elections.

Republicans were declared winners in three races and Democrats won one, while two other races were too close to call. Democrats needed to win at least three races to have a chance to recapture the Senate, which they lost when Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP won of the governor's mansion and both houses of the Legislature. Two Democrats also face challengers next week.

After taking office, Walker and Republican lawmakers curbed public employees' collective bargaining power and made them pay more for benefits. Anger over those moves led to the recall elections.

Voters will choose the incumbent or challenger, rather than vote to remove the lawmaker from office.

Both sides poured millions of dollars into TV ads, automated phone calls and direct mail pieces. Total spending for the contests, including one Democrats won last month and the two next week, easily exceeded $30 million.

A union coalition, We are Wisconsin, used former Green Bay Packer Gilbert Brown in a last-minute calling campaign urging voters to defeat veteran 14-year Republican Sen. Robert Cowles.

But Cowles, facing his first election challenge in a decade, defeated challenger by Nancy Nusbaum, a former mayor of De Pere and Brown County executive.

In a northwestern border seat, incumbent Republican Sheila Harsdorf had 58 percent of the vote to 42 percent for Democrat Shelly Moore with 75 percent of precincts counted. And with 95 percent of precincts counted in central Wisconsin, incumbent Republican Luther Olsen of Ripon, the birthplace of the national Republican Party, had 54 percent to Democratic state Rep. Fred Clark's 46 percent.

One of the highest-spending races was in the north Milwaukee suburbs, where Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch challenged Sen. Alberta Darling, a 19-year incumbent. Darling, co-chair of the legislature's budget writing panel, was a key target for unions.

In western Wisconsin, Democrat Jennifer Schilling ousted Republican Dan Kapanke.

On its face, the voting was about control of the Wisconsin state Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 19-14 majority.

But the voting also is an indication of Walker's popularity and support for his conservative agenda. Unions already are discussing plans to try to recall him next year, after he has served the requisite year in office.

They also were trial runs for party organizers heading into the 2012 national campaigns for the White House and Congress. Though it is not a traditional swing state, Wisconsin's presidential elections have been among the nation's closest in two of the last three cycles. President Obama took the state four years ago and won in all six state Senate districts up for election Tuesday, though Walker carried them two years later.

Underscoring the national implications, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Chicago, a member of the House Democratic leadership, traveled to Pasch's Glendale campaign headquarters where the two exchanged hugs. Schakowsky and some of her political workers were assisting in getting voters to the polls.

Republicans and Democrats mounted massive get-out-the-vote efforts, acknowledging the uncertainty of turnout in August and the need to sway independent voters. Democrats had believed that the petition drives that led to the recall elections of the six Republicans would give them a list of motivated voters to cultivate.

"People are incredibly stirred up on both sides because of events in Wisconsin," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group that tracks candidate spending. "Wisconsin has been put on a national stage and this is seen as something as a national referendum."

As voters went to the polls, Walker signed into law new Republican-drawn legislative redistricting maps that could mute any Democratic gains after next year's elections with the governor's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, saying the new boundaries meet "the objective criteria laid out by the courts." The Democratic leader of Wisconsin's Assembly, Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha, contended Walker "signed these redistricting maps into law in a manner intended to hide his actions" with voter attention diverted by the recall election.

Though on the defensive, the Republicans under recall didn't shy away from their record of supporting the governor or his agenda.

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