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Recall elections in Wisconsin a nationwide test for both parties

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Wisconsin voters head to the polls next week in a series of recall elections that could alter the balance of power in state government and test the appeal of the policies and messages of both political parties in a crucial presidential battleground and beyond.

The elections were triggered by outrage over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s move to curb collective-bargaining rights for public employees, but analysts say they have morphed into high-stakes contests between the competing views of government held by Republicans and Democrats.

Many of the policies pushed by Walker — including cutting Medicaid, requiring voters to show identification at the polls, slashing state education aid and refusing to raise any taxes, even in the face of large budget gaps — have been championed by Republicans in states including Ohio, New Jersey, Florida and Minnesota, as well as in Washington.

Those issues are likely to resonate in the 2012 presidential race, and the recall elections in Wisconsin will be an early test of whether the hard line taken by Republicans in the states and in Congress is seen as extreme or consistent with voter sentiment.

With the stakes so high, both parties and their allies have been pouring money and other resources into the recall contests.

If Democratic activists are successful in Wisconsin’s recall elections, they see a line of political dominoes that could be toppled.

Democrats have said that their next recall target would be Walker, who will become 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 Democrat Herb Kohl, who is retiring.

Ultimately, they hope the momentum will help lift President Obama in a state he carried by 14 percentage points in 2008, but where Democrats have since struggled, losing both the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

“The political oxygen that would be injected into an already volatile political environment would be overwhelming if the Democrats regain the Senate,” said Doug Hill, a Democratic political consultant in Wisconsin. “It would be difficult to stop.”

But if Democrats do not prevail, momentum could quickly dissipate, he said. “I don’t want to say the Democrats would have failed,” Hill said. “But I think some people would say that.”

The elections are an outgrowth of the bitterly divisive battle waged this year over Walker’s “budget repair bill,” which, among other things, required public employees to increase their pension contributions while drastically curtailing their collective-bargaining rights.

The bill brought a flood of protesters to the State Capitol. It also ignited efforts to oust Republican senators who supported the bill, as well as Democrats who fled the state in an ultimately futile effort to block its passage.

In all, nine Wisconsin state senators — six Republicans and three Democrats — face recall challenges, with the voting scheduled to stretch into mid-August. Republicans control the Wisconsin Senate 19 to 14.

“A net gain of three seats and the Democrats will be in a position to block the governor’s initiatives,” said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. “But if the Republicans hold the Senate, then I think they can see that as a ratification of the policies they adopted.”

For now, Democrats see an opening. A recent statewide poll found that 59 percent of Wisconsin residents disapprove of the way Walker is handling his job, a finding that has been consistent since the huge protests precipitated by his collective-bargaining stance in February. Meanwhile, the poll found, 55 percent are dissatisfied with how things are going in Wisconsin.

This week, six Democrats prevailed over primary challengers put forward by the Republican Party. They will face off against six incumbent Republican state senators in recall elections Aug. 9.

Meanwhile, there is a recall election Tuesday for a seat held by a Democratic state senator. There will also be GOP primaries that day in the recall elections for two state Senate seats held by Democrats. The winners of those primaries will face off against Democratic incumbents Aug. 16.

Though Democrats are attacking Republicans for their support of Walker, the GOP candidates are countering that the governor’s policies offer the kind of sweeping change needed to foster stronger economic growth.

“Voters have a clear choice ahead of them,” said Stephan Thompson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, after this week’s primaries. “Should Wisconsin continue on the path of job growth and economic recovery, or do we want to revert back to the failed policies of [former Democratic governor] Jim Doyle that led our state into this fiscal disaster in the first place?”

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