By M.D. Kittle and Alissa Smith Wisconsin Reporter
RIPON, Wis. — After weeks of heavy, hard-fought campaigning, Wisconsin’s GOP narrowly escaped with their political lives, pushing back a fierce recall effort while maintaining a slim majority in the Senate.
Republicans held off recall challenges in the 2nd, 8th, 10th and 14th Senate Districts, with the Democrats ousting Republican senators in the 18th and 32nd districts.
The pendulum of political power hung in the balance, until after midnight Wednesday in the bitter 8th Senate District race, where incumbent Republican Roberta Darling held a 6 percentage point lead over Democratic challenger Sandy Pasch, with 80 of 82 precincts reporting.
Darling, declared the victor by many media outlets, posted a nearly 5,000-vote win, under the shadow of accusations by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin that Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus sat on ballots.
The charge is reminiscent of similar allegations in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election earlier this year — an outcome that asserted conservatives as the majority on the court. Nickolaus initially reported a vote total that omitted the city of Brookfield’s ballots.
Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We believe the election in this contest has been tampered with by Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus.”
The Republicans maintain a razor’s edge majority in the state Senate, at 17-16, effectively making moot Aug. 16’s two recalls targeting Democratic senators.
Republicans, however, could add to their advantage in that last round of recalls.
Before the night’s final tally, Democrats were feeling confident, and smelling blood in the water.
The 32nd Senate District, where state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, defeated Republican incumbent Dan Kapanke by 10 percentage points, 55 percent to 45 percent, was no surprise. Pollsters had pegged a double-digit victory for Shilling.
But the big win of the night for the Dems came in Senate District 18, where challenger Jessica King narrowly defeated incumbent state Sen. Randy Hopper, R- Fond du Lac. The difference was 749 votes, with King winning 51 percent to Hopper’s 49 percent.
The outcome was a bigger margin than when the two squared off in 2008, in a race that saw King lose by 163 votes.
State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, pushed back recall, with a 4 percentage point victory over challenger state Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, in the hotly contested 14th Senate District. It was a race, like the others, that saw millions of dollars in special interest money pumped in — with attack ads targeting both candidates.
Olsen relished the victory.
“They always kept saying, ‘Luther you’re not listening to your constituents; you’re not listening to your constituents,” Olsen told a crowd of supporters during a victory speech in his hometown of Ripon. “Tonight my constituents spoke, and guess what?”
The two-term senator sees his win as validation of the GOP-led budget repair agenda, spearheaded by Gov. Scott Walker, that filled a $3 billion-plus deficit, balanced the budget and eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public employees.
“We did what the folks of the 14th Senate District wanted us to do,” Olsen said.
State Sen. Robert Cowles, easily defeated Democratic challenger Nancy Nusbaum, 60 percent to 40 percent to retain the 2nd Senate District seat.
Cowles called his win a “victory for the taxpayers of Northeast Wisconsin.”
“I pledge to continue my work controlling spending, cutting waste, fraud, and abuse in government, and creating an environment to grow and retain good-paying jobs,” the senator said in a statement following his victory.
And state Sen. Shiela Harsdorf fought off recall by nearly the same percentage, 58-42, against Democrat Shelly Moore in the 10th Senate District.
During the campaign, Clark chided Olsen for supporting the “Walker agenda.” Clark, like his fellow Democrats in the recall election, had the backing of big labor and the Democratic National Committee. The candidate did not return calls from Wisconsin Reporter.
The GOP senators drew upon support from business and, to some degree, the tea party.
Early estimates peg campaign spending on all nine recall elections this summer could hit $31 million — in outside interest cash alone. It appears the money was pretty evenly divided on both sides.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates the candidates spent an additional $5 million to $6 million, with total expenditures approaching the $37 million dished out in Wisconsin’s 2010 governor’s race.
There’s more at stake than who controls the Senate.
Conservatives everywhere are gauging the results as vindication of a national movement to rein in government spending; liberals see Wisconsin as the battleground of a defensive labor movement and a test of the 2012 presidential election.
Much has changed in the past three years. President Barack Obama won Wisconsin handily in 2008, Walker and the Republicans won complete legislative and executive control, with the governor carrying the six districts on Tuesday’s recall ballot by an average 13 percentage points.
But while Walker wasn’t on Tuesday’s ballots, his policies certainly were.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin said voters made a clear choice to “continue down the path of economic progress that Wisconsin has been on the past seven months.”
“The assault that was unleashed on our state by national unions and special interest groups has been defeated by the will of the taxpayers to move our state forward, and put the needs of Wisconsin families above union demands, said Stephan Thompson, the Wisconsin GOP’s executive director.