Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker discusses results of recall elections in an… (Scott Bauer / AP )
Reporting from Milwaukee and Washington — Republicans held on to control of the Wisconsin state Senate despite a ferocious effort by Democrats and allied groups to recall lawmakers who supported controversial budget reforms, an outcome that left both parties publicly declaring victory and privately seeking to discern the potential effect in 2012.
Republicans were declared winners in four races Tuesday, while Democratic challengers successfully unseated two others. Democrats needed to win three seats to have a chance to recapture the Senate, which they lost when Scott Walker and the GOP took control of the governor's mansion and both houses of the Legislature last fall.
The stand by Republicans could reverberate across the country as the battle over union rights and the conservative revolution heads toward the 2012 presidential race. Republicans saw it as a big win for Gov. Walker and an affirmation of his conservative agenda, the hallmark of which has been his successful push to strip most collective bargaining rights from public workers.
Walker told the Associated Press on Wednesday that even though his party managed to retain control of the Legislature, he thinks the recall election results show that voters want both parties to work together on jobs and the economy.
"People still want us to focus on those two priorities," Walker said. "They want us to work together."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, the former Wisconsin Republican chairman, tied the outcome to national issues, saying voters "rejected the reckless spending of Wisconsin Democrats and the downgrade-inducing policies of their Washington counterparts."
Democrats and union leaders tried to make the best of the historic GOP wins. There had been only 13 other successful recalls of state-level office holders nationwide since 1913.
"The fact we've accomplished as much in six months as had been achieved in the 85 years since recalls were put in the Wisconsin state Constitution is a stunning rebuke to Scott Walker's extreme attacks on middle-class working families," said Kelly Steele of We Are Wisconsin, a union coalition pushing the recall vote.
"Tuesday's historic Wisconsin recall elections showed just how vulnerable Republicans are in the November 2012 elections – and how vulnerable Gov. Walker is to a recall election himself," Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate said in a post-election memo. "Despite ... built-in GOP advantages, Democratic recall efforts in 2011 have been a great success."
As he carried the state in 2008, President Obama carried each of the districts that held recall elections. But so did Walker in 2010 as he reclaimed the governor's office for the GOP for the first time in eight years. Two of the races Tuesday were decided by less than 2,500 votes.
Wisconsin has not voted for a Republican in a presidential race since 1984, but both parties expect it to be a battleground in 2012. There will also be an open U.S. Senate seat on the ballot, and the potential recall effort against Walker.
Two more recall elections are scheduled for next week in districts held by Democrats. But with control of the Senate no longer at play, it's unlikely that either party will wage the same kind of vigorous effort to turn out voters.