After tens of millions of dollars spent by outside interest groups, dozens of attack ads and exhaustive get-out-the-vote efforts, Democrats on Tuesday fell short of their goal of taking control of the state Senate and stopping the agenda of Gov. Scott Walker.
Republicans won four of six recall races, meaning the party still holds a narrow 17-16 majority in the Senate — at least until next week, when Sens. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, and Jim Holperin, D-Conover face their own recall elections. A third Democrat, Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, easily survived a recall attempt last month.
Sens. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, successfully defended their seats Tuesday.
Challengers state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, and Jessica King unseated incumbent state Sens. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, and Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac.
Going into Tuesday, Republicans controlled the body 19-14, so Democrats needed to win at least three seats and hold onto two more next week to take over.
"The revolution has not occurred," said UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic lawmaker. "The proletariat did not take over the streets."
Tuesday's recalls were largely seen as a test of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has drawn national attention since unveiling his controversial plan to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from most public workers. Proof of that was visible on election night as national news organizations broadcast from across the state and political pundits led their newscasts with result updates and discussed their ramifications on the nation's political landscape.
Republican senators were targeted for recall after backing Walker's plan. Democratic senators came under attack for leaving the state to delay a vote on the measure.
However, the focus of the recalls has since expanded, shifting away from the collective bargaining fight toward issues such as taxes and funding for public schools and seniors.
A couple thousand Democratic supporters gathered at the state Capitol Tuesday night, hopeful at first but deflated when it appeared they might fall short of the three victories they needed.
Still, some praised Democrats' modest gains.
"I think the fact that this election is going on right now is a victory in and of itself. We put them on the hot seat," said Randy Bryce, 46, of Caledonia, who came to the Capitol Tuesday with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. "I would have liked to have seen us run the table on them, but this is okay for now."
Several media reported Darling was waiting for Pasch to make a concession speech shortly before midnight, But Darling's victory allows Republicans to continue to control the Legislature and set the agenda.
"I don't think there is much of a moral victory in taking only two," UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin said. "This was all about taking command of the Senate."
Tuesday's unofficial results capped the most expensive elections in state history.
Cash flowing into the recalls already has approached $30 million, and total spending by third-party groups and candidates could top $40 million, election watchdogs say. That total would double spending on all 116 of last fall's state legislative races combined.
Outside interest groups have spent millions on both sides, from conservative organizations like Wisconsin Club for Growth, Wisconsin Family Action, and Citizens for a Strong America to pro-union and liberal groups like We Are Wisconsin, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Democracy for America.
Many view the races as a sign of whether the next Wisconsin politician facing recall will be Walker himself. The governor remained largely absent from any public appearances with the GOP senators targeted for recall.
Tony Spencer, a 36-year-old laid-off carpenter from Shorewood, voted for Darling's challenger, Democratic state Rep. Sandy 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."
But 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."
— State Journal reporter Jeff Glaze and The Associated Press contributed to this report.