MADISON, Wis. — Control of the Wisconsin state Senate rested with one Milwaukee-area race that was too close to call Tuesday, as Republicans tried to beat back Democrats stoking a backlash against the GOP and Gov. Scott Walker for their efforts to strip public employees of most union rights.
Democrats needed to win that recall election, as well as two next week targeting their own incumbents, to wrest majority control away from Republicans. Republicans successfully defended three Senate seats in recall elections and Democrats picked up two. One Democratic incumbent won his recall election last month.
National labor groups and conservative groups spent millions on the races. The attempt to remove GOP incumbents served as both a referendum on Walker's conservative revolution and could provide a gauge of the public mood less than a year after Republicans made sweeping gains in this state and many others.
It was the race pitting Republican Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills against Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch of Whitefish Bay that was too close to call. With 68 percent of precincts reporting, Pasch was ahead 51 percent to 49 percent
Tony Spencer, 36, a laid-off carpenter from Shorewood, voted for Pasch. "I'm in a private union, so they haven't necessarily come after me," Spencer said. "But everybody should have the right to be in a union. I came out to stop all the union-bashing stuff."
John Gill, 45, of Menomonee Falls voted for Darling and questioned the opposition's anti-GOP rhetoric, which went far beyond collective bargaining.
"This was all supposed to be about the workers' rights, so to speak. But that has not been brought up one time. It's all been misleading, the attack ads, things like that," Gill said. "The one reason they started this recall, they didn't bring up once."
Until this year, there had been only 20 attempts since 1913 to recall any of the nation's state lawmakers from office. Just 13 of the efforts were successful.
Winning on Tuesday was Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke, who had been in the Senate since 2004. The other Republican ousted was first-term incumbent Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac, defeated by Democrat Jessica King, the former deputy mayor of Oshkosh.
Republican Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez and Luther Olsen of Ripon held on to their seats.
Republicans' 19-14 advantage in the Senate dropped to 17-16 with the Kapanke and Hopper losses.
The stakes in Wisconsin were clearly much larger than control of the Senate. The recall election will also help determine whether the Republican revolution led by Walker regains momentum or suffers a major setback. Both parties also were testing messages ahead of the 2012 presidential race, in which Wisconsin was expected to be an important swing state.