MADISON, Wis. - Republicans held onto control of the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday, beating back four Democratic challengers in a recall election despite an intense political backlash against GOP support for Gov. Scott Walker's effort to curb public employees' union rights.
Fueled by millions of dollars from national labor groups, the attempt to remove GOP incumbents served as both a referendum on Walker's conservative revolution and could provide a new gauge of the public mood less than a year after Republicans made sweeping gains in this state and many others.
Two Democratic incumbents face recalls next week, but even if Democrats win those they will still be in the minority.
Turnout was strong in the morning and steady in the afternoon in communities such as Whitefish Bay, Menomonee Falls and Shorewood, where Sen. Alberta Darling was one of the four Republicans to hold onto her seat.
Tony Spencer, a 36-year-old laid-off carpenter from Shorewood, voted for Darling's challenger, Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch.
"I'm in a private union, so they haven't necessarily come after me," Spencer said. "But everybody should have the right to be in a union. I came out to stop all the union-bashing stuff."
John Gill, 45, of Menomonee Falls, voted for Darling and questioned the opposition's anti-GOP rhetoric, which went far beyond collective bargaining.
"This was all supposed to be about the workers' rights, so to speak. But that has not been brought up one time. It's all been misleading, the attack ads, things like that," Gill said. "The one reason they started this recall, they didn't bring up once."
Until this year, there had been only 20 attempts since 1913 to recall any of the nation's state lawmakers from office. Just 13 of the efforts were successful.
Also winning on Tuesday was Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke, who had been in the Senate since 2004. The other Republican ousted was first-term incumbent Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac, defeated by Democrat Jessica King, the former deputy mayor of Oshkosh.
Republican Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez and Luther Olsen of Ripon all held onto their seats.
The stakes in Wisconsin were clearly much larger than control of the Senate. The recall election will also help determine whether the Republican revolution led by Walker regains momentum or suffers a major setback. Both parties also were testing messages ahead of the 2012 presidential race, in which Wisconsin was expected to be an important swing state.