MILWAUKEE — A Democratic state senator from Wisconsin easily survived a recall election Tuesday that gave voters their most direct opportunity yet to react to a Republican-backed law that stripped most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Sen. Dave Hansen defeated Republican recall organizer David VanderLeest, collecting 66 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to unofficial results Tuesday night.
Hansen was the first of nine state senators set for recall elections to face voters amid the fallout from the bitter fight surrounding Republican Gov. Scott Walker's collective-bargaining plan, which attracted national attention and tens of thousands of protesters to the Wisconsin Capitol earlier this year.
The other eight lawmakers – six Republicans and two Democrats – will face recall elections next month.
The stakes of the elections are high: If Democrats pick up a net of three seats, they'll retake control of the state Senate and gain key momentum in their efforts to recall Walker next year.
The Republicans were targeted for supporting Walker's proposal, which eventually passed the GOP-controlled Legislature and survived a court challenge. The three Democratic senators are being targeted because they and their 11 Democratic colleagues fled Wisconsin for three weeks to prevent a vote on the measure.
Hansen didn't immediately return phone messages seeking comment Tuesday night. VanderLeest said he was heartened that he ran on a shoestring campaign with only several thousand dollars but still garnered 34 percent of the vote.
"I'm actually feeling pretty good considering how much I was outspent," he told The Associated Press. "It shows how well my message was received."
Hansen entered his race with a major cash advantage, raising $318,000 since April, while VanderLeest raised $2,000. VanderLeest was also vulnerable because of a criminal record that included convictions in 2006 on two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct.
Gail Rose, a 34-year-old credit-union worker from Suamico, a town north of Green Bay, said she voted for Hansen on Tuesday because his decision to leave the state showed he was willing to stand up to Republican "bullying."
"He stuck up for us," she said. "He stood up for the people who voted for him. I like that."
But Dennis Arcand, a retired postal worker from Green Bay, voted for VanderLeest, saying the candidate's legal issues were overshadowed by his positions on the issues.
"I believe he's on the right side of the issue of getting the budget under control," said Arcand, 55. "I think Dave Hansen's a good guy, but on collective bargaining and the budget, that's why I voted for Mr. VanderLeest."
Kris Teske, an election specialist for the city of Green Bay, said local polling sites saw a steady stream of voters. State election officials said there were no immediate reports of voting problems or irregularities.
Hansen was the first to face a general election because his challenger had no opposition from his own party, meaning there was no primary. Though primaries were held Tuesday for Republicans challenging the other two Democratic senators. Sen. Bob Wirch will face business attorney Jonathan Steitz, while Sen. Jim Holperin will be opposed by tea party organizer Kim Simac.
The slates were finalized last week in the races targeting the Republicans
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.