Voters in Wisconsin went to the polls Tuesday in a recall election for Republican-held seats that could shift the power balance in the state Senate.
Very early results showed the Republican incumbents up in five of the six races.
Three of the GOP incumbents, state Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Luther Olsen from Ripon and Robert Cowles of Allouez, looked likely to safely hang on to their seats. All three held double-digit percentage-point leads with more than half of their districts' vote counted.
The fates of the six Republican lawmakers up for recall could foreshadow what lies ahead for Gov. Scott Walker, who earned the ire of union workers and Democrats after he cut collective-bargaining rights for public workers, many of whom had swarmed the Statehouse in Madison in February in protest.
Turnout for the off-year race and for a second recall election next week featuring two Democrat-held Senate seats, was expected to be as high as 45 percent.
About $30 million has been spent on the recall, with an estimated $20 million to $25 million of that coming from political interests outside the state.
Democrats must win three of the six recall seat races to regain control of the Senate, which now has a 19-14 GOP majority.
"Motivation is extremely high on both sides. There are certainly plenty of angry people in all of this," said University of Wisconsin at Madison political scientist Charles Franklin. He calls each of Tuesday's races a tossup, predicting that two may go to Democrats, but even that is not a certainty.
"It was certainly the collective-bargaining issue that created these recalls to begin with," he said. "We wouldn't be having them without it."
Campaign ads, however, have featured traditional messages from each side, rather than angry rhetoric, he said. Democrats have primarily stressed Republican cuts to education and health care, while on the GOP side the message is about balancing the budget without increasing taxes.
The Wisconsin recall elections, the third for the state in the past 15 years, are part of a growing trend in the Midwest.
In Michigan, unions and other activists are seeking a recall of new Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.
In Ohio, where a recall against state legislators is not allowed, some are seeking a referendum repeal of a new state collective-bargaining law that was pushed through the Ohio General Assembly by Republican Gov. John Kasich. The Ohio repeal is supported by 56 percent of state voters, according to a Quinnipiac poll released in mid-July.
Wisconsin is a key state for Democrats' 2012 hopes. President Obama won the state in 2008 by almost 14 percentage points, a huge margin. But the 2000 and 2004 presidential races were decided in cliffhangers on a combined total of a little more than 17,000 votes out of nearly 5.6 million votes cast in the two elections in the state.
Both parties think the state is in play in 2012.
"The outside money is off the charts on both sides," Mr. Franklin said of the recall election. "It reflects that these are issues that have national importance."
Among the most closely watched Wisconsin races next year is the battle to replace retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat. A handful of prominent politicians from both parties, including former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, and former Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, both Democrats, have expressed interest in seeking the seat.
All of the national and state elections, in addition to the August recall races, will serve to keep Wisconsin voters busy come 2012.
"You are going to have a competitive presidential race here, a competitive U.S. Senate race, and finally, you have all of our state Legislature here up for election," Mr. Franklin said.
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