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In final Wisconsin recall, signs of a national tea party backlash?

Wisconsin will hold its final two recall elections Tuesday amid signs that the bellwether state might be swinging back left after jumping on the tea party bandwagon in 2010.

By Staff writer / August 16, 2011

Wisconsin State Sen. Jim Holperin (D) talks outside the Clock Tower Resort in Rockford, Ill., on Feb. 17. Thirteen Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin in February to prevent Gov. Scott Walker (R) from pushing through a bill to curb collective bargaining rights for some state unions. Holperin and one other Democrat are facing recall elections Tuesday.

Scott Morgan/The Rockford Register Star/AP/File

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Recall fatigue may be setting in for Wisconsin voters. But when another cluster of them heads to the polling booths Tuesday, their votes not only could have a significant impact on the Wisconsin Senate, but also could provide a glimpse a what might transpire nationwide in 2012.

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In Tuesday's recall elections, two Democratic incumbents in the state Senate face Republican challenges. Last week, six Republican state senators faced recalls, with four holding on to their seats. That leaves Republicans with a 17-16 advantage in the state Senate.

While Republicans cannot lose their majority Tuesday – meaning they will retain control of the Senate, Assembly, and governorship – picking up an extra seat could give them valuable legislative breathing room.

If both Democrats prevail, however, the election could offer further evidence that the country's broad political middle is swinging back left after the tea party triumphs of last November. The composition of Wisconsin's electorate almost exactly matches America's, polls suggest, meaning that the state is emerging as a microcosm of the national political mood, which makes it a crucial bellwether in the 2012 national election.

Fundamentally, Wisconsin is a purple state – neither red nor blue – "and that makes it important,” says John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Even with Republicans ruling all three branches of state government no matter the outcome, Tuesday’s election does give Democrats a chance to hold tight to that slim margin, which they can use to strategize with Republican moderates to vote against future conservative legislative efforts.

“A one-vote majority in any legislative assembly is pretty tenuous,” says Professor McAdams. “Republicans would really be quite better off if they could pick up one of the races on the ballot.”

Tuesday’s recall elections pit Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch against challenger Jonathan Steitz, a corporate attorney, in the Kenosha-area 22nd Senate District. In the other race, Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin is being challenged by Kim Simac, a tea party activist, in the 12th Senate District, located in the north.

The campaigns can’t help but address the controversial legislation pushed by Gov. Scott Walker (R), which includes bills to limit the collective bargaining of unions, give gun owners the right to carry concealed weapons, redistrict political boundary lines, and create tougher ID restrictions at the voting booth.

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