Republicans held onto control of the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday night, beating four Democratic challengers in a recall election viewed as a referendum on Republican policies in that state and beyond.
The Associated Press declared Republican Sens. Alberta Darling of River Hills, Robert Cowles of Allouez, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls and Luther Olsen of Ripon winners. The AP also declared Democratic challengers Jennifer Shilling of LaCrosse and Jessica King of Oshkosh victors.
Two Democratic incumbents face recalls next week, but even if they win those seats, the GOP will retain control of the state Senate. That marks a major victory for Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a crushing defeat for Democrats and organized labor, which poured millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours into the recall effort.
Republicans now hold the majority in both chambers of the state legislature, a status that allowed Walker to quickly put his policy plans into action when he took office in January.
The recalls were triggered by outrage over Walker’s move to sharply curtail collective-bargaining rights for public employees. But the races have become a national referendum on the competing views of government held by Republicans and Democrats.
Outside groups — led by national unions on the Democratic side and limited-government groups such as Club for Growth Wisconsin on the Republican side — have poured more than $28 million into the recall campaigns, shattering all records for state Senate contests in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the candidates in the nine recall elections around the state between mid-July and mid-August have raised more than $5 million. Much of the money has gone to buy television ads focused on Walker’s policy agenda and the lock-step support he received from the GOP senators who are facing recall challenges.
After taking office, Walker moved aggressively to curb collective-bargaining rights and have public employees contribute more to their pensions, igniting huge protests at the state capitol in Madison.
The governor also has championed a new law requiring voters to show identification at the polls, slashed state education aid and cut Medicaid — all while lowering some business taxes and ruling out any tax increases to balance the state budget.
Walker has explained that his budget policies are aimed at allowing Wisconsin to live within its means while creating a better atmosphere for job creation.
Republicans have pushed similar policies in Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota and other states. The battle over Walker’s agenda echoes the debate in Washington, where congressional Republicans have refused to raise taxes — or even close tax loopholes — to shrink the budget deficit.
That issue is likely to be at the center of the 2012 presidential race, and the recall elections offer an early test of whether the hard line taken by Republicans in Congress and the states is seen as an overreach or in line with voter sentiment.
Democratic activists have said that if they are successful in Wisconsin’s recall elections, Walker would be their next target when he becomes eligible for recall in January. They also are aiming to capitalize on the energy from the recall battles to help carry them to victory in the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Herb Kohl (D), who is retiring.
They also hope the momentum will give a boost to President Obama in a state that he carried easily in 2008, but where Democrats have since struggled, losing both the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
But if the Republicans fend off a Democratic takeover of the state Senate, analysts say, that momentum could evaporate.
“If the Republicans hold the Senate, I think they can see that as a ratification of the policies they adopted,” said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor.
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