Jack Leff talks with poll workers as voters line up to cast ballots on Tuesday… (Mike De Sisti / Associated…)
Reporting from Milwaukee — Republicans and Democrats were locked in a furious and expensive battle for control of the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday as voters went to the polls in a series of recall elections that both sides acknowledged were a precursor for next year’s fight for the White House and Congress.
Six Republican incumbents faced Democratic challengers in Senate districts scattered across the state. Voter turnout was reported to be heavy, with some county clerks predicting it would match the levels seen in presidential elections.
Democrats needed to win at least three of the races to have a chance to recapture the Senate, which they lost when Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP took control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Legislature.
After taking office, Walker and Republican lawmakers eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public employees and made them pay more for benefits. Anger over those moves lead to the recall elections.
Voters will choose either the incumbent or challenger, rather than vote to remove the lawmaker from office.
Democratic and Republican groups poured millions of dollars into TV ads, automated phone calls and direct mail pieces. Total spending for all the recall contests, including those for two Democratic incumbents 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.
Cowles, facing his first election challenge in a decade, was facing former DePere mayor and Brown County executive Nancy Nusbaum.
One of the highest-spending races was in the northMilwaukee 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 labor unions.
On its face, the voting was about control of the Wisconsin state Senate, where Republicans 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.
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 of a national referendum.”
Though on the defensive, the Republicans under recall didn’t shy away from their record of supporting the governor or his agenda.
“Being recalled? It makes me feel very proud to stand up for the people I serve,” Darling said. “We had an election in November that told us what they wanted us to do. They want us to get control of spending, debt and deficit. It’s really clear. We flipped both houses [to Republican control] and put a Republican governor in. ... I did what I was elected to do.”
Republicans also criticized Senate Democrats who fled across the state line to Illinois earlier this year in an effort to try to stop the GOP from passing the austerity measures.
“[Democrats] are trying to reverse the outcome of November’s elections,” said Brad Courtney, the Wisconsin state Republican chairman. “Our senators stayed in town, did their jobs…. They didn’t raise taxes and it’s a budget that put Wisconsin on sound fiscal footing.”
In an effort to buy the Republican incumbents more time to organize, Republicans fielded phony Democratic candidates to run against the legitimate Democratic challengers for the party’s nomination. All six fake Democrats lost to the real contenders.
One of the nine recall elections already has been held. Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay held his seat last month.
Next week, two other Democratic incumbents face recalls -- Sens. Robert Wirch of Pleasant Prairie and Jim Holperin of Conover.