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Wisconsin recall leaves both sides claiming victory

Alberta Darling at a victory party in Wisconsin
Alberta Darling thanks supporters including fellow state senators Leah Vukmir, middle and Pam Galloway, 29th district (Wausau) during her recall victory party in Thiensville, Aug. 9, 2011. AP Photo/Rick Wood - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Democrats in Wisconsin failed to gain control of the state Senate in Tuesday's recall elections, but both Democrats and Republicans are claiming victory in the struggle, which cast Wisconsin as "ground zero in a national class war, partly over the fate of organized labor."

In the unprecedented recall elections against six Republican state senators, four Republican lawmakers won, leaving the GOP with a slim 17 to 16 majority. Two Democrats face recall elections next week, which could bolster the GOP's weakened control.

The recalls were spurred by vehement anger over Republican Gov. Scott Walker's ultimately-successful effort to curb public employees' union rights. The number of lawmakers facing recall elections in a matter of weeks was unprecedented, and national organizations brought millions of dollars and significant organizational support into the mix.

While the recalls were inspired over union rights, the elections morphed into a referendum against Walker's entire Republican agenda, encompassing issues like school vouchers and health care funding. Meanwhile, the recalls were seen as something of a test for the GOP agenda at the national level -- whether Republican leaders could withstand the blowback from taking on unions, particularly in a key battleground state.

"I think it's a huge victory for us," John Hogan, director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Voters gave us a mandate last fall... They backed us up again."

Similarly, Republican State Leadership Committee President Chris Jankowski called Tuesday's results a "tremendous victory" with larger implications.

"Tonight's results demonstrate that responsible budgeting measures and job creating policies can prevail over mountains of liberal special interest money from those fighting to maintain the unsustainable status quo," Jankowski said in a statement. "By beating back countless liberal special interest dollars and paid supporters, the strength of responsible Republican ideals is obvious and foreshadows continued Republican victories in 2011, 2012 and beyond."

While labor unions and liberal groups did contribute significantly to the recall effort, the Republican senators were also heavily backed by third party interest groups and the national parties.

Democrats and their backers argued that their impressive mobilization efforts showed that labor unions still have voter support, in spite of the GOP's best efforts to limit their influence. The mere fact that they were able to collect enough signatures quickly enough to put six Republicans up for recall suggests the union-backed liberal movement remains strong, they say.

"Beyond Wisconsin, if we can enjoy a similar 'loss rate' in Republican-held districts (picking up 33 percent of them), Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have a huge majority in 2013," liberal pundit Markos Moulitsas wrote. "We had a message that resonated with large numbers of working people in overwhelmingly white working-class districts that shifted hard against Democrats in 2010. GOP overreach is winning them back for us."

Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democratic Party, told the Journal Sentinel, "We went on their turf and we won on Republican turf."

Republican Sens. Alberta Darling of River Hills, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez and Luther Olsen of Ripon all held onto their seats. Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke, while Democrat Jessica King defeated first-term incumbent Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac.

While Democrats did make some gains in Republican-held districts, the New York Times' Nate Silver points out that these elections were in swing districts -- districts that voted for Walker in 2010 but for President Obama in 2008. Furthermore, extrapolating national implications from Tuesday's elections could be a futile exercise, given the extraordinary and unique political circumstances in Wisconsin, where residents protested for weeks over union rights.

Union rights have been a point of contention in other states like Ohio this year, and some Republican governors, like Rick Scott of Florida and Rick Snyder of Michigan, have left some voters grumbling over their agenda.

While national Republican leaders say the outcome in Wisconsin validates the agendas Republican governors have pursued, Walker suggested Tuesday that he was willing to extend an olive branch to Democrats.

"Earlier this evening I reached out to the leadership of both the Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly and State Senate," Walker said in a statement. "I shared with them that I believe we can work together to grow jobs and improve our state. In the days ahead I look forward to working with legislators of all parties to grow jobs for Wisconsin and move our state forward."

Walker could very well have his own fate in mind, since Democrats intend to hold a recall election against him next year.