By M.D. Kittle and Alissa Smith | Wisconsin Reporter
KENOSHA, Wis. — On the heels of last week’s Republican power hold, incumbent Democrats held off ouster from two relatively unknown challengers Tuesday to maintain the Republican’s razor-thin Senate majority at 17-16.
What looked like a surprise upset in the Democrat’s turn at the recall dance rapidly faded into a runaway win for the incumbent in the 22nd Senate District.
State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, beat Jonathan Steitz, an attorney, also of Pleasant Prairie, by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin, respectively, in the grand finale of Wisconsin’s summer of recall elections.
Wirch won by 6,703 votes — or 25,541 to 18,838 — in an extremely high-turnout election that saw long lines and ballot shortages at some Kenosha County polling places.
“I am proud to continue to represent the people of the Kenosha region,” Wirch said in a statement issued through the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “The future of Wisconsin depends on the strength of our working, middle-class families, and I look forward to returning to Madison with two new Democratic Senators to enact a moderate Wisconsin agenda that supports them.”
Wirch’s statement was a nod to the Democrats’ two victories in last week’s super Tuesday of state Senate recall elections.
Four of six Senate Republicans kept their jobs, handing the GOP a hold on Senate power that they could not relinquish.
Steitz assured supporters in Kenosha that their voices were heard in the campaign.
“And I think we sent a clear message that we expect our representatives to act a certain way and that there are consequences if they don’t,” the candidate said.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting as of 11:43 p.m., Holperin held a 10-percentage point lead with 55 percent of the vote to Simac’s 45 percent — or 29,750 votes to 24,069 votes, respectively.
The race was considered a dead heat by some, a blowout by others, depending on the polling information. One poll this week put Holperin up by double-digits, another put the race within the margin of error.
Campaign officials said the ground game, not partisan polls, would make the difference in a heated battle that marked Holperin as derelict in his senatorial duties and Simac delinquent on her property taxes.
The Republican made several annual tax payments on her North Woods properties late.
Holperin, like Wirch, fled the state this past winter along with 12 other Democrats in the Senate, hiding in Illinois to avoid a vote on the Gov. Scott Walker-led budget-repair bill and sweeping changes to collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
The bill eventually passed, along with others, filling a $3 billion-plus biennial budget gap and curtailing collective-bargaining for many public workers.
Streets around the Capitol swelled with Walker and GOP protesters, mostly backed by big unions, and counter protests.
The havoc spun into political blood lust, with Democrats targeting six Republicans in recall petition drive. Three Democrats were called to the recall platform.
Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen, of Green Bay, was the first of the nine state senators to face ousting election, but easily survived last month.
What does it all mean now that the dust is beginning to clear?
Republicans say they’ve got the numbers. But with Tuesday’s hold, keeping the GOP edge thin, Democrats say it could mean a change in the way the majority deals with the growing minority.
Joe Heim, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor, said he sees the possibility for more collaboration between the two parties, particularly with Republican moderates like Sens. Dale Schultz and Sheila Harsdorf in the mix.
But that olive branch could turn thorny if Democrats push forward on their big prize — the recall of Walker. The rhetoric didn’t seem to change Tuesday, with Democrats still talking about their petition drive coming in November to put the governor on the recall ballot in 2012.
Heim said he sees that fire dissipating, particularly among voting Democrats. He asserts Walker, too, is acting in kind.
“The fact that the governor is reaching out and making several attempts to reach out to other side tells me he’s seen handwriting on the wall here,” he said. “He doesn’t want to go through this either. So now I think you can look toward legislative proposals that might be more bipartisan in nature.”
Republicans scored huge victories in the previous session, in budget cuts, holding the line on property tax increases and the piece de resistance — the collective-bargaining changes. The question is, is that victory enough?
The Democratic wins, Heim asserts, are a message by a majority of voters in those districts that the senators did not fail in their duties, or that leaving their post did not rise to the demand of recall.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sees the final verdict differently.
“What we saw tonight is a rejection of the recall process,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The Democrats and their friends spent tens of millions on attack ads, talked about everything but the issues, and cared more about their own political gain than what’s good for Wisconsin.”
The Juneau Republican said the problems facing Wisconsin are too serious for “these political games, and the Democrats’ permanent campaign cycle.”
“The Democrats need to start working with the other side of the aisle, not just moving on to their next recall target,” Fitzgerald said.
““Wisconsin now emerges from this recall election season with a united Republican majority who has beaten off an attack from national unions and special interests and emerged steadfastly committed to carrying forward a bold job creation agenda,” said Brad Courtney, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, in a statement.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, shot back that Wirch’s “landslide victory” was a “historic rejection of Gov. Walker’s extreme and hyperpartisan agenda.”
Turnout in many parts of the recall targeted districts was running above 40 percent, according to clerks.
In Kenosha County, long lines meant 30- to 45-minute waits during peak voting times.
Kenosha County Clerk Mary Schuch-Krebs said her office was printing ballots on demand as polling stations began to run low late in the day. The Government Accountability Board, or GAB, the state’s election agency, directed some county sites to split the voting list to move voters through more efficiently.
Schuch-Krebs said lines were slower due to GAB requirements requiring poll workers to ask voters for photo Identification and to have voters sign the ballot books. She said it added time to every vote, but clerks statewide are working out the kinks for upcoming elections.