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Bob Wirch speaks after recall election victory

Democratic State Sen. Bob Wirch addresses supporters at the UAW 72 Hall in Kenosha on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011 after he won his recall election against Jonathan Steitz. Two Democratic Wisconsin state senators targeted by Republicans survived their recall elections Tuesday.

BRIAN PASSINO — Associated Press/Kenosha News

Wisconsin Democrats have won the last two of nine state Senate recall elections held over the course of the summer, meaning that the opponents of Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on collective-bargaining rights have prevailed in the majority of recall elections and claimed the majority of votes cast in what many saw as a statewide referendum on Walker’s policies.

Democratic state Sen. Bob Wirch, of Kenosha, won his southeastern Wisconsin district with 58 percent of the vote Tuesday, while Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin won his northern Wisconsin district with 55 percent.

Holperin won by a significantly wider margin than he gained in his 2008 campaign, while Wirch more than doubled the margin he won in his last closely contested race — a 2004 match-up with Reince Priebus, who went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Their wins come on the heels of victories last week by two Democratic challengers to Republican senators who faced recall votes.

That means that Democrat have narrowed the Republican advantage in the Wisconsin Senate to a razor-thin 17-16 split, which puts a moderate Republican senator who opposed Walker’s assault on collective-bargaining rights in a position to work with Democrats to temper the extremes of the governor and his allies.

Republicans point out that the Democrats did not succeed in taking control of the state Senate, an ardent hope of the opposition party and its allies as their pursued their efforts to oust GOP senators in last week’s recall voting in Republican districts across the state.

But the final tallies from a summer of recall elections confirm that the governor and his allies have suffered not just defeats in districts located in the north, south, east and west of the state but also a serious blow to their authority inside the state Capitol.

“Scott Walker’s working majority in the Wisconsin state Senate is over,” announced the labor-backed group We Are Wisconsin after Tuesday night’s big wins for the Democrats were declared. “(The) chamber now boasts a pro-worker majority that would not have passed the budget repair bill that touched off this entire fight.”

That is not hyperbole. The 16 Senate Democrats — 14 who went to Illinois in February to block legislative action on the governor’s proposal and two new members who beat Republican incumbents who sided with the governor — all are defenders of collective-bargaining rights. Add to that total moderate Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who broke with his caucus to oppose the budget repair bill, and it is indeed the case that the Senate majority is now at odds with the governor on the issue that provoked last winter’s mass demonstrations against the governor’s agenda and the recalls.

The last of the summer’s recall elections took place six months after Walker proposed his plan to strip away collective-bargaining protections that had been enjoyed for five decades by state, county and municipal employees and teachers, and five months after the governor’s legislative allies passed the measure without any Democratic votes.

The bitter debate surrounding those moves — which provoked mass demonstrations in communities across Wisconsin — spurred the rush to recall state senators.

National conservative groups and their Republican allies announced early on that they would go after the Democratic senators who had left the state to try to block Walker’s plan.

Unions and their Democratic allies then moved to recall Republican senators who had sided with Walker.

With Tuesday night’s wins for the Democrats, the most closely watched series of recall elections in American history — and, with as much as $40 million in spending, one of the most expensive political fights the country has ever seen — is finished.

For now. Tuesday’s Democratic wins, and the final accounting from the Senate recalls, is likely to renew talk of recalling Walker.

It is safe to say that the state’s period of political volatility is far from finished.

Still, this is a good point at which to assess what has transpired this summer.

Here’s some perspective:

1. Wisconsin has held more high-stakes recall elections in a brief period than any state at any time in American history. Six Democratic challenges to Republican senators who sided with Walker were mounted, along with three Republican challenges to the Democratic senators who left the state to block Walker’s agenda. The nine districts where recall elections have played out since July 12 have been urban, rural and suburban. In a very real sense, the pattern of recalls has provided a statewide referendum on the popularity of the governor’s policies.

2. All of the elections took place in state Senate districts that Republicans controlled or where Republicans chose to force recall elections. At the start of the process, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald claimed that his party would pick up seats in the Senate. Democrats hoped to shift control of the Senate. Neither side achieved their goal, but Democrats came closer to getting there. While two members of Fitzgerald’s Republican caucus were defeated last week — western Wisconsin Republican Dan Kapanke lost to Democrat Jennifer Shilling and eastern Wisconsin Republican Randy Hopper lost to Democrat Jess King — none of the three targeted Democrats (Holperin, Wirch and Green Bay Sen. Dave Hansen, who won his recall race last month) was defeated.

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3. Democrats won the overall majority of recall elections, with five victories to four for the Republicans.

4. Democrats won the overall majority of votes cast in the nine districts, with roughly 243,000 votes statewide to 239,000 for the Republicans. That’s a narrow margin but remember that Walker won these districts in 2010, and that Republican Senate candidates easily won six of them in 2008.

5. Republicans went into the recall fight with a comfortable 19-14 majority in the Senate. They finish it with a bare 17-16 advantage. But that does not tell the whole story, as one of the 17 Republicans is Schultz, the Wisconsin maverick who has broken with the governor and his party on key issues. A southwestern Wisconsinite who served as Senate majority leader in 2004, Schultz has been a legislator since 1983.

6. The great battle of the winter and spring was over collective-bargaining rights. When the state Senate finally took the issue up, the Democratic senators were absent. But the governor’s proposal to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of most collective-bargaining protections did not pass unanimously. Schultz voted “no.” He has continued to be highly critical of the governor and extreme elements of the GOP agenda. He has talked up the need for bipartisanship and moderate approaches, and he recently toured the southern part of the state with Sen. Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat, to promote cooperation.

7. Schultz will remain a Republican, but his willingness to cooperate with the Democrats increases the prospect that Walker will have to moderate his approach. Here is the best way to understand things: If the Democrats had had 16 senators in March, those 16 and maverick Republican Schultz could have blocked the governor’s assault on collective-bargaining rights. The collective-bargaining issue might be revisited by the Legislature, as the measure passed in March faces multiple legal challenges and could yet be blocked by the courts. Additionally, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans (including Schultz and, perhaps, several other relative moderates, led by Senate President Mike Ellis) could block other conservative proposals, such as an anti-labor “right-to-work” law or proposals for school privatization. Additionally, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, “The narrower majority would make it tougher to win approval of controversial legislation, such as stricter abortion restrictions or tougher penalties for illegal immigrants.”

9. While Republicans and their allies tried to claim victory last week, the party and interest groups that tend to support its candidates spent heavily on the final two recalls, hoping to displace Holperin or Wirch. They knew that they could only claim a clear victory if they displaced at least one Democrat. That did not happen.

10. One final note for perspective: In addition to the recalls, Wisconsin had one other competitive state legislative election this year: A May contest to fill the state Assembly seat of Republican Mike Huebsch, who left the Legislature to become Walker’s chief appointee (as secretary of the state Department of Administration). The western Wisconsin seat, representing a traditionally Republican district that Huebsch held with little serious opposition for 16 years, was won after an intense contest by a Democrat. Factor this in and Wisconsin Democrats have, since May, flipped three GOP legislative seats. Republicans have flipped no Democratic seats.

So it is that, for all the talk of Republican “wins” this year, the reality is that the Democrats have the far better record of winning competitive races. That’s a significant shift from 2010, when the Republicans had the advantage. And it has Democrats in Wisconsin and across the country celebrating. Late Tuesday, after it was clear that Holperin and Wirch had won by comfortable margins, Michael Sargeant, the executive director of the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, declared: “This is an epic victory in the battle to loosen the Republican stranglehold on Wisconsin state government. Tonight’s Democratic wins are not only part of a broad rebuke of the Wisconsin GOP’s out-of-touch, anti-middle class agenda, but also a warning shot in the ongoing fight against right-wing extremism in states across the country.”

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com