MILWAUKEE -- The recall elections targeting Wisconsin lawmakers amid the bitter fallout from the state's new collective bargaining law began in lackluster fashion with a Democratic senator easily keeping his seat. But the other eight races may not be so easy, and the stakes are high.
If Democrats win five of those August races, they'll retake control of the Wisconsin Senate and gain key momentum in their efforts to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker next year.
The recall elections stem from the controversial law Walker pushed earlier this year that strips most public workers of their collective bargaining rights. The legislative fight over his plan attracted national attention – and tens of thousands of protesters to the Wisconsin Capitol.
On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen defeated Republican recall organizer David VanderLeest during the first of those elections with 66 percent of the vote. But unlike VanderLeest, who raised only $2,000 compared to Hansen's $318,000, candidates challenging the other two Democrats and six Republicans facing recalls have far more money and party support.
"We did what we had to do," said Hansen, whose 30th District covers much of Wisconsin's northeastern corner. "The momentum has started."
The Republican senators facing recalls were targeted for supporting Walker's proposal, which eventually passed the GOP-controlled Legislature and survived a court challenge. Hansen and the other two Democratic senators were targeted because they and their 11 Democratic colleagues fled Wisconsin for three weeks to stall a vote on the measure.
The state Democratic Party trumpeted Hansen's win as a defeat for Walker's agenda. State Republicans countered by congratulating the winners of the two GOP primaries Tuesday but didn't mention the Hansen race.
The state Republican party has hinted that it might dip into its own cash reserves to help candidates who emerge from the primaries. The party had $479,000 in the bank as of June 30, more than double the $193,000 reported by the Democrats.
VanderLeest was vulnerable not only because of Hansen's major cash advantage, but because of a criminal record that included convictions in 2006 on two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct. After the election, VanderLeest said he was heartened by the outcome despite the loss, noting that he won 34 percent of the vote even though he ran on a shoestring budget.
"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."
LaVonne Bray, a retired school worker from Green Bay, said she voted for Hansen because he took a difficult but principled stand. She said it was likely difficult for Democratic senators to leave the state for three weeks in order to stall a vote on Walker's proposal.
"They gave state citizens time to understand what Republicans were pushing through without anyone really knowing what was going on," the 60-year-old said. "Dave Hansen has my full support."
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."
Hansen was the first to face a general election because his challenger had no opposition from his own party, meaning there was no primary.
However, primaries were held Tuesday for Republicans challenging the other two Democratic senators. Sen. Bob Wirch will face business attorney Jonathan Steitz on Aug. 16, the same day that Sen. Jim Holperin will be opposed by tea party organizer Kim Simac.
The slates were finalized last week in the races targeting the six Republicans. Their recall elections will be Aug. 9.
While VanderLeest struggled to raise cash, the winners of Tuesday's primaries proved they could. Simac's campaign reported having almost $60,000 in the bank earlier this month, while Steitz raised more than $33,000 and had more than $12,000 cash on hand.
That still leaves them at a disadvantage, since the Democratic incumbents each have at least $140,000 cash on hand.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.