By Scott Bauer
Madison — A stand by Wisconsin Republicans against a massive effort to oust them from power could reverberate across the country as the battle over union rights and the conservative revolution heads toward the 2012 presidential race.
Democrats succeeded in taking two Wisconsin state Senate seats away from Republican incumbents on Tuesday but fell one short of seizing majority control of the chamber.
Republicans saw it as a big win for Gov. Scott Walker and a confirmation of his conservative agenda, the hallmark of which was a polarizing proposal taking away 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, the recall election results show 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.”
Walker said he planned to meet soon with leaders from both parties to discuss areas where they could work together. The invitation was greeted with skepticism from Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca.
“It’s bipartisan action,” he said, “not bipartisan rhetoric that people are looking for.”
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 of the matter remains that, fighting on Republican turf, we have begun the work of stopping the Scott Walker agenda,” said Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said voters sent a message there is a growing movement to reclaim the middle class.
“Let’s be clear,” he said, “anyway you slice it, this is an unprecedented victory.”
Still, it was far less than what Democrats set out to achieve. And while they still plan to move ahead with recalling Walker, maintaining momentum for that effort, which can’t start until November, will be difficult.
Sen. Luther Olsen, one of the four Republicans who won Tuesday, said he hopes the victories “take the wind out of the recall for Walker, but I’m not sure.”
Tate, the Democratic Party chairman, said Wednesday that Democratic gains showed how vulnerable Walker is and that the recall effort would continue with the election taking place in November, timed to coincide with expected high Democratic turnout in the presidential race.
Two Democratic senators face recall elections next week, but even if they prevail, Republicans still would hold a narrow 17-16 majority.
Collectively, more than $31 million has been spent on the recalls, largely from outside conservative groups, unions and others.
Republican and Democratic strategists were leery of reading too much into the results heading into next year’s campaign in which Wisconsin is expected to be a key swing state.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the results could provide “some early radar warnings” about the 2012 races, and that he expects the conservatives “to fight back like an angry badger.”
Lehane said Wisconsin’s tumultuous year since November’s elections has been a microcosm of the current roller coaster era of U.S. politics.
Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in the 2010 election just nine months ago.
Democrats had sought enough wins in the recalls to let them block the Republican agenda, but the GOP will hold on to majorities that have let bills pass rapidly through the Legislature.
The elections also were closely watched in other states undergoing similar partisan battles.
A coalition of unions and labor-friendly groups fighting a Wisconsin-style collective bargaining overhaul in Ohio said the outcome of the recall elections will have little bearing on whether Ohio’s law is repealed this fall.
The effort in Wisconsin was about recalling specific Republicans who voted for the collective bargaining bill, while the push in Ohio is about repealing the law itself. That makes it difficult to compare the two states, said We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas.
Supporters of the Ohio law also are distancing their state from the fight in Wisconsin.
“We’re not focused on Wisconsin, and Ohioans aren’t looking to another state to tell them where they should stand,” said Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, a group defending the collective bargaining law.
Ohioans will vote Nov. 8 on whether to accept or reject the union-limiting law signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in March that limits bargaining rights for more than 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other government employees.
Unlike in Wisconsin, Ohio’s Constitution makes no provision for recalling elected officials.
Associated Press writers Colin Fly in Menomonee Falls, Marilynn Marchione in Whitefish Bay, Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Henry C. Jackson in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.