By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Recall elections prompted by anger over lawmaker handling of a proposal to curb union rights let Wisconsin Democrats narrow the Republican majority in the state Senate, but not capture control, and left both sides claiming victory while looking ahead to 2012.
The recalls targeting six Republicans and three Democrats were the largest single attempt ever to oust sitting U.S. lawmakers, bringing together powerful national unions and conservative forces that turned Wisconsin into a microcosm of the battle over union rights and a testing ground for messaging in next year’s presidential race.
Republican senators who backed Walker’s plan to eliminate nearly all public employee collective bargaining rights found themselves defending their seats alongside Democrats targeted for fleeing the state in an ultimately futile attempt to block a vote on the law.
More than $40 million was estimated to have been spent on the recalls, an unprecedented amount on nine local races that would exceed the $37 million spent statewide last year on the race that put Walker in power.
President Barack Obama stayed out of the recall fights, even though Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes are important as he looks ahead to 2012. He won the state by 14 points in 2008, but Republicans took control of the Statehouse just two years later and, along with Walker, ushered in a new conservatism that directly spawned the recall effort.
The recall campaigns largely stuck to tried and true partisan issues like the choice between cutting spending and taxes in the face of protecting government programs in a tight budget. The tone is likely to translate into next year when Wisconsin voters also will be asked to choose a new U.S. senator to fill a seat currently held by a Democrat and a possible recall effort against Walker.
“This state is up for grabs. It’s remarkably volatile,” said University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden. “This is a 50-50 purple state.”
Republicans lost two state Senate seats in the recalls, one short of the three Democrats needed to retake the majority. All three Democratic senators targeted for recall, including two on Tuesday, were victorious — leaving the GOP with a 17-16 edge in the chamber.
Democrats say they still plan to launch a recall effort against Walker next year, but the political turmoil that rocked Wisconsin with the unveiling of Walker’s union bill in February and drew tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol for days on end is still expected to subside for at least a few months.
Walker already is trying to moderate, saying after the two Republican losses last week and the release of a poll showing a 59 percent disapproval rating that he wanted to work in a more bipartisan way with Democrats. His spokesman Cullen Werwie reiterated that message after the two Democratic wins Tuesday.
“With the uncertainty of the recalls over, the governor is looking forward to working together with the Legislature and job creators to get more Wisconsinites back to work,” Werwie said.
Democrats, still stung by Walker’s pushing through of the collective bargaining bill without compromises, were skeptical.
“I believe the governor is afraid for his job and is talking in moderate terms,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie, who along with Sen. Jim Holperin of Conover held on to their seats Tuesday.
“I will believe him when he backs it up with action.”
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said Democrats have “fundamentally changed the face of power in the Wisconsin Legislature” through the recalls. Even though Republicans remain in the majority, Tate said Democrats’ picking up two seats and making gains in Republican districts sets the table for big wins next year.
“It’s really hard to go five for nine and not be pleased of the progress that we made,” he said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement that he was proud the GOP maintained its majority and, in his own combative way, also issued a call for bipartisanship.
“The problems facing our state are too serious for these political games, and the Democrats’ permanent campaign cycle,” Fitzgerald said. “The Democrats need to start working with the other side of the aisle, not just moving on to their next recall target.”
His message was echoed by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, the former Wisconsin GOP party chairman.
“Liberals should stop distracting voters with expensive recall elections and start helping Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans get Wisconsin back to work,” Priebus said in a statement.
Wirch, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1992 and the Senate in 1996, defeated Kenosha attorney Jonathan Steitz with 58 percent of the vote based on unofficial results. His district covers the city of Kenosha and surrounding area in southeast Wisconsin near the Illinois border.
Holperin, who won with 55 percent of the vote based on unofficial results, said the election showed that not everyone disapproved of Democrats leaving the state during the heated collective bargaining debate.
“Voters apparently think that was more of a good thing than a bad thing,” he said.