Democrats win in latest Wisconsin recall. Is state a little less red now?

Two Democratic state senators kept their seats in Tuesday's Wisconsin recall election. Republicans still hold the legislature, but less comfortably. They are now more likely to tailor policy to independent voters, say analysts.

By , Staff writer

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    Democratic State Senator Bob Wirch addresses supporters at the UAW Local 72 Hall in Kenosha, Wis., Tuesday, Aug. 16, after he won the Wisconsin recall election against Jonathan Steitz. Two Democratic Wisconsin state senators targeted by Republicans survived their elections Tuesday.
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Republicans in Wisconsin’s Senate will retain their razor-edge margin over Democrats in the wake of a special recall election Tuesday.

Voters allowed two Democratic incumbent senators to retain their seats, meaning Republicans have just a one-vote majority in the Senate, 17 to 16. That's a narrower margin than before this month's spate of recall elections. Expectations are that it will push Gov. Scott Walker (R) toward a legislative agenda that holds greater appeal for Democrats or that is handled more sensitively than the so-called “budget repair bill” from February, which so angered Democrats that they fled the state to prevent a vote on it.

The reshuffling is expected to make it more difficult for the Republican majority to pass controversial legislation such as stricter restrictions on abortion rights or harsher penalties for illegal immigrants.

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An earlier recall election, held Aug. 9, dashed Democrats' hopes of seizing control of the Senate, but it did roll over two Republican seats in their favor. For Republicans, that represented a retrenchment from their gains of the 2010 midterm elections, which swept them into power in both houses of state government and the governor's office.

Both Democratic senators up for recall Tuesday managed double-digit victories. With 95 percent of precincts reporting in District 12 by midnight, Sen. Jim Holperin (D) defeated Kim Simac, a tea party organizer, 55 to 45 percent. In the District 22 race, Sen. Bob Wirch (D) defeated Jonathan Steitz, a corporate attorney, 58 percent to 42 percent, with all precincts reporting.

Senator Wirch’s district represents Kenosha and much of the area in southeast Wisconsin close to the Illinois border. Senator Holperin’s district lies in the northernmost area of the state alongside Green Bay.

Two weeks of recall elections gave both parties an opportunity to declare victory.

In holding their majority, Republicans claimed that voters were less than thrilled to recast votes for state senators they fully supported all along. They also said voters rejected the idea that kicking out their Republican senators served as a de facto referendum on Walker’s legislation, which Democrats portrayed as hostile to public-sector unions and the middle class.

For their part, Democrats claimed they succeeded in creating a Senate that will be less of a rubber stamp for Walker's policies. They also said the closer margin will help to give Democrats their voices back just in time for the 2012 national election cycle.

Telling the Associated Press that Tuesday’s recall election “fundamentally changed the face of power in the Wisconsin legislature,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate suggested that, “at the end of this historic recall effort, Democrats have the momentum.”

Republicans are casting the recall process as “political games” by embittered Democrats, according to Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald. “Democrats need to start working with the other side of the aisle, not just moving on to their next recall target,” Senator Fitzgerald said in a statement released Tuesday.

That next recall target is decided: Walker. Mr. Tate and other Democratic leaders have already said they plan to begin efforts this summer to remove Walker from office when he becomes eligible for recall in 2012.

However, the public’s appetite is small for another recall election of a state official, even though Walker has lost some support.

Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh, N.C., polling firm that often works for Democrats, reported Monday that 50 percent of Wisconsin voters oppose recalling Walker, with 47 percent in favor. The findings reverse those in May, when 47 percent of voters opposed a Walker recall and 50 percent were in support.

Because Walker’s approval ratings have been sliding, the growing opposition to his recall probably has more to do with voter fatigue about the process itself.

Some 53 percent of voters disapprove of Walker’s performance. If a recall election were to take place between the current governor and former US Sen. Russ Feingold (D), Mr. Feingold would be the preferred choice for 52 percent of voters, compared with 45 percent who would vote to keep Walker in office.

In a statement, Public Policy Polling Dean Debnam said “a Scott Walker recall is still in the realm of possibility,” but added that “Democrats really might need Russ Feingold to run if they want to knock” Walker off the ballot.

Walker may survive a recall if he tailors more bipartisan issues, like job creation, to independent voters. “It will be nearly impossible [for Walker] to win Democratic voters back, but independent voters currently leaning against him probably could be convinced to come back to his side if the next six months are less divisive than the last seven months,” says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The Republican whom Democrats are expected to cajole and not criticize is state Sen. Dale Schultz, considered the single moderate in his party. Senator Schultz was the only Senate Republican to vote against Walker’s “budget repair bill,” and many Democrats have suggested that his vote is so valuable that he is first in line for any back-room negotiations that may take place once the Senate reconvenes this fall.

Time will tell whether Schultz ultimately serves as a lynchpin for more bipartisanship in the Senate, says Mr. Franklin. He will be sought after by Republicans, too, for potentially persuading moderate Democrats to vote for bills pushed forward by his own party.

“He’s certainly getting a lot of love and attention from a lot of people. Whether or not he’ll fulfill the role Democrats want him to fulfill” is less certain, Franklin says.

In Wisconsin, voters are about evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. “All evidence says [Wisconsin] is still a purple state,” says Franklin, which means it is likely to be among the swing states that decide the national election in 2012. “The underlying complexity of the electorate remains fairly closely divided,” he says. With so much hanging on Wisconsin next year, “a cliffhanger is the most likely outcome.”

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