By Eric Boehm | Wisconsin Reporter
RACINE — Democrats appear to have swung into control of the Wisconsin state Senate by pulling out a narrow victory in one of the four state Senate races contested Tuesday.
With all precincts in the 21st District reporting, the unofficial tallies show John Lehman defeated state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, by about 780 votes. If that result holds, Democrats will hold a narrow 17-16 edge in the state Senate at least until the general election in November.
Lehman declared victory early in the morning Wednesday.
“Tonight, the citizens of Racine County voted for checks and balances in our state legislature. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the state senate,” he said in a statement.
Wanggaard has not conceded the race.
“We owe it to all of Senator Wanggaard’s supporters and the voters of Wisconsin to thoroughly examine the election and its results and act accordingly once we have all of the information,” said Justin Phillips, the campaign’s communications director.
Racine County Clerk Wendy Christensen said the results would be unofficial until next Tuesday when the canvass — a technical word for double-checking all vote totals and certifying the results — is completed.
After that, the losing candidate can call for a recount.
If the two are separated by less than 0.5 percent of the vote, taxpayers would pick up the cost of a recount. Otherwise, the candidate who requests it must pay.
If the current results are unchanged before becoming official, Wanggaard’s campaign would have to pay for a potential recount.
Christensen said there also are about 570 absentee ballots that have not been received. Ballots postmarked by Tuesday will be accepted until Friday.
There have been some questions raised by Wanggaard’s supporters about the vote tallies in Racine City, which were painfully slow to be reported Tuesday night. Long after the governor’s race and other state Senate races had been called, Racine had yet to report any results.
Christensen said she had not been alerted to any specific issues by municipal officials, but said the county would be investigating why results were so much slower in Racine County than in the rest of the state on Tuesday night.
Republicans also are raising questions about tactics used by Democrats and unions to drive out the vote in Racine, a reliably Democratic town that is the population anchor for the 21st District.
Volunteers with Wanggaard’s campaign said on Tuesday night they witnessed an attempt by union members to get some voters into the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, one of Racine’s largest polling places, after the 8 p.m. deadline for voting. After a disagreement with the election officer at the polling place, the city clerk ruled that the individuals in question were not allowed to vote, according to the eyewitnesses.
Other media outlets reported vans driving around Racine to take voters to polling places that advertised “cash money” in windows, raising ethical questions.
City election officials did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
The race was a rematch of the 2010 general election, in which Wanggaard garnered 52 percent of the vote and defeated Lehman, who had completed one term in the state Senate.
Following that election, Republicans held a 19-14 edge in the state Senate, but several GOP senators were targeted for recall after helping Gov. Scott Walker pass Act 10, which limited the collective bargaining of some unionized public employees and launched a backlash from labor unions in
Wisconsin that swelled to a national battle over the role of unions for government workers.
Democrats closed the gap in the Senate to 17-16 with a round of recall elections last August.
Walker ultimately survived the recall challenge, defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on Tuesday night, but it appears the Republican majority in the state Senate did not hold.
Three other Republicans were victorious on Tuesday night in other state Senate races.
In the 13th District, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Dodge, won 58 percent of the vote to survive a challenge from Lori Compas. Fitzgerald is the Senate majority leader.
In the 23rd District, state Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa, won 57 percent of the vote to defeat Democratic challenger Kristen Dexter.
In the 29th District, Republican Jerry Petrowski took 61 percent of the vote to defeat Democrat Donna Seidel in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by state Sen. Pam Galloway, R-Marathon, who resigned in March, citing personal reasons.
If Democrats maintain a slim edge in the state Senate for the next few months, it is unlikely they will be able to achieve any political victories in Madison, said John McAdams, professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Republicans continue to hold the governor’s mansion and the GOP enjoys a comfortable 60-39 advantage in the state Assembly, the Legislature’s lower chamber.
“They are far from being able to roll back Act 10,” McAdams said.
And Republicans are already eyeing state Senate races for the fall.
Given an assist from redistricting, Republican strategists say the GOP will be able to flip as many as four Democratic Senate districts in November.
“We look at November as the first chance we have to be on offense” after two rounds of recall elections targeting Republicans, said Dan Romportl, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, a political group.