Union forces in Wisconsin and beyond were dealt a blow Tuesday night after Republicans held onto four of the six state Senate seats in recall races and kept majority control of the chamber.
While thousands marched on the Madison statehouse in February over a new law promoted by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that limits collective bargaining rights for public workers, voters in the Badger State turned out in record numbers and sent a message that economic reform trumps the heated power of organized labor.
“The outcome yesterday is a win for Republicans, but it’s especially a weakness for Democrats and the union groups because they fell short of their goal,” said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“Maybe we could talk about the shows of strength, mobilization and closeness that came from this. But at best what it says is unions will be in for very tough fights wherever they take this issue. It is not going to be one that can easily win.”
Wisconsin Democrats picked up two seats in the recall election, which saw massive voter turnout — in some areas on par with the last gubernatorial race — but failed to muster the three victories needed to return them to power in the Senate.
If Wisconsin voters were feeling election fatigue amid the recall-campaign onslaught of advertising and rhetoric, they are not out of the woods just yet. Two Democratic lawmakers will face off next Tuesday in yet another recall race, which could add extra seats back to state Senate Republicans.
Matt Seaholm, Wisconsin director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said the results of Tuesday’s elections show that many voters, not only Republicans but many from the middle of the road, are willing to give Mr. Walker the opportunity to govern and do what he said he would do to lead the state.
“They are seeing Gov. Walker’s policies working, and they want to give these guys who took the tough votes a chance. They are governing,” he said.
The wins also were a blow for organized labor and its claims to represent the masses, he said.
“They had a goal of showing everybody that the government unions and the workers that they supposedly represent equals the middle class, and that’s just not the truth,” Mr. Seaholm said. “The fact is, the middle class are the taxpayers who can no longer afford these lavish benefits and the huge government costs that have been racked up. They have said enough is enough.”
James P. Hoffa, national Teamsters president, chose to see the glass as half-full, though, saying Republicans “didn’t win four seats — they lost two and barely hung on to two others.”
“I am proud of Wisconsin’s middle-class working families. With these two victories, Wisconsin sent a clear message to Republicans — when you attack working families, you will be held accountable,” he said.
Wisconsin Democrats said Wednesday they still plan a recall bid against Mr. Walker starting in November, when the state Constitution permits.
The election was transformed into a battle far more expensive than any Wisconsin residents have ever seen, with outside groups spending more on the recall races than they did on all state Senate and Assembly races in the last cycle combined. Collectively, more than $31 million was spent on the recalls, rivaling the $37 million spent on last year’s governor’s race. About $20 million of that came from outside the state.
Both Republican state Sens. Alberta Darling and Dan Kapanke outspent the state’s previous spending records for individual candidates of $722,000. Ms. Darling, who won, spent more than $1.1 million, and Mr. Kapanke, who lost, spent more than $853,000, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election spending.
We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of labor unions, was the top spender on the Democratic side, forking over nearly $8.8 million. Other big spenders among the Democrats were the Greater Wisconsin Committee, an advocacy organization, which accounted for about $1.5 million for the recall races, and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s major teachers union, which spent about $500,000.
While other states, such as Ohio and Michigan, grapple with union concessions in a tight-budget era and conservatives describe themselves as energized over the Wisconsin wins, Mr. Franklin said Republicans cannot take for granted that anti-union measures are easy winners.
“For Republicans, they cannot coast to victory with a popular policy of cutting state union and employee benefits without encountering major blowback,” he said.
The fallout for both parties, however, will linger.
“I think reconciliation with the bases is going to be an incredibly hard thing to accomplish. The bases of both parties have been traumatized by this and are unlikely to get over it for a long time,” Mr. Franklin said.
• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.
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