Six incumbent GOP state senators were forced to defend their seats on Tuesday in historic recall elections. The efforts to change the makeup of the state Senate came after Republicans passed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) controversial measure stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
Even though Democrats weren't able to take back one of the chambers of the legislature, they touted the fact that voters ousted two incumbent Republicans as a major victory.
"The fact we've accomplished as much in six months as had been achieved in the 85 years since recalls were put in the Wisconsin state Constitution is a stunning rebuke to Scott Walker's extreme attacks on middle class working families," said Kelly Steele, spokesman for the labor-backed coalition We Are Wisconsin.
"On Tuesday night, Wisconsin spoke loud and clear with the recall of two entrenched Republicans. ... The fact of the matter remains, that, fighting on Republican turf, we have begun the work of stopping the Scott Walker agenda," said Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate in a statement.
State Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) told The Huffington Post earlier on Tuesday that losing two seats would be a "wake-up call to Republicans."
"It creates a 17-16 Senate," he explained. "That means they have no margin of error. They've got to have legislation that all 17 Republicans, without exception, are for."
The first three wins of the night were good news for Republicans: Sens. Robert Cowles (R-Allouez), Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) all held on to their seats.
"I think the voters in northwest Wisconsin and in the 10th Senate district have spoken once again to recognize that Wisconsin's on the right track, they want us to get our fiscal track in order, and they want us to grow jobs," said Harsdorf in a post-win interview with WQOW in Eau Claire. "And they recognize the reforms that we've passed are beginning to work, and we have led the nation in changing how government operates."
Democratic challenger Jennifer Shilling then beat incumbent state Sen. Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse), who was considered the most vulnerable candidate because of the large Democratic presence in his district.
In one of the most interesting races of the night, Democrat Jessica King beat state Sen. Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac). It was déjà vu for the voters in the district: In 2008, King and Hopper also ran against each other, but in that contest, Hopper beat his opponent by just 163 votes.
The final race of the night wasn't called until after midnight, due in part to late results from Waukesha County, whose clerk, Kathy Nickolaus, botched the results in the state Supreme Court race in April. State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) managed to hold on to her seat.
Tate accused Nickolaus -- who has a long history of errors -- of "tampering with the results," although he later backed down and said the party "will not pursue questions of irregularities."
It's unlikely that Tuesday's results will stamp out Democratic enthusiasm for recalling Walker when he becomes eligible in January. Additionally, next year will bring a new round of lawmakers who weren't eligible for recall this year.
Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said it will be interesting to watch not only how Walker reacts to losing two GOP members in the state Senate, but where the citizens of Wisconsin take the movement next.
"I keep reminding people, it wasn't the legislature that started these recalls," said Barca. "These were people across the state who just showed up in throngs and were very upset with the policies that were trying to roll back the clock on Wisconsin values -- 50 years of collective bargaining, 40 years with the University of Wisconsin system, 30 years of women's health, 70 years of environmental policies like recycling and clean water. This is a citizens' movement, not a politicians' movement."
After the election results came in, Walker put out a statement saying that it was "clear the voters also want us to work together to grow jobs and improve our state."
"With that in mind, earlier this evening I reached out to the leadership of both the Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly and State Senate. 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," he said.
Three Democrats -- part of the "Wisconsin 14" who left the state for 21 days in order to delay their GOP colleagues from pushing through the bill -- also faced recall elections.
State Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) handily won his reelection on July 19. Sens. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) and Robert Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) will face off against their challengers next week.
"I'm out doing the same things I've done every day for the past four or five months," said Holperin on Tuesday afternoon, "and that's attending community events and going door to door, and participating in various civic organizations' meetings about the race."
Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt said that while there is always a significant focus on elections -- and labor certainly invested heavily to win -- the results won't change the labor movement's focus.
"We're trying to build an economy that works for working families, that gives people the right to collectively bargain, that gives people the right to have a fair system of shared sacrifice, shared prosperity, and so on and so forth," he said. "So we will continue to organize, we will continue to build a coalition, whether we win or lose. It would be silly to win the election and figure, well, we're done."