By Brendan O'Brien
RHINELANDER, Wis (Reuters) - Two Wisconsin Democratic state senators beat back Republican challengers on Tuesday in the last of a series of recall elections triggered by a fight over collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.
Both Democrats and Republicans were claiming victory on Tuesday in a series of nine summer recall votes in which Democrats unseated two incumbent Republicans but fell short of winning control of the state legislature.
Democrats had hoped to win a majority in the state senate following a fierce battle with Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies earlier this year over public workers' union powers that involved mass protests, legislative maneuvering and court challenges.
"This was a political Rorschach test in that anyone can read anything into the result," said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee governmental affairs professor and former Democratic lawmaker. "Politically, it was a draw."
He expected the results would embolden Democrats to try to recall Walker, which would require a half a million signatures just to schedule an election. "By November, we'll know if they're pursuing it seriously or not."
The Democrats who successfully defended their seats on Tuesday, Robert Wirch and Jim Holperin, were among 14 Wisconsin state senators who left the state in an attempt to prevent passage of an anti-union measure earlier this year.
Holperin beat political novice and Tea Party activist Kim Simac by 54 percent to 46 percent, according to WisPolitics.com. Wirch beat Republican lawyer Jonathan Steitz by 58 percent to 42 percent.
Overall in the recall elections, a total of three Democrats and four Republican incumbents kept their seats, while two Republicans were unseated.
CONTROL OF SENATE
Republicans managed to keep control of the state senate -- 17 to 16. But state Democrats point out that one Republican state senator, Dale Schultz, voted against Walker's curbs on public sector unions. They argue that the balance of power actually shifted away from the conservatives.
"The state Senate as now constituted would NOT have approved Walker's extreme, divisive assault on the middle class and working people," Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Mike Tate said in a statement.
Brad Courtney, chair of the state's Republican Party, congratulated Simac and Steitz for mounting what he described as well-fought challenges.
"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," Courtney said in a statement.
Holperin told supporters in Rhinelander that he hoped the recall results would signal a change in Wisconsin politics.
"I do hope (these recalls) signal a new era of what I hope is a more moderate approach to public policy in the state, starting with the governor," he added.
Governor Walker fought for the union curbs, which restrict the bargaining rights of public workers and also make them pay more for health care and pensions, saying they were needed to help Wisconsin close a $3.6 billion budget deficit.
Democrats cried foul, saying public workers had already agreed to steep benefit cuts. They called the effort union-busting, designed to hobble organized labor -- a major source of Democratic Party financing -- ahead of the 2012 elections.
The fight thrust Wisconsin into the national spotlight, igniting massive pro-union protests and political fights that led to the recall efforts against six Republicans who backed the union curbs and three Democrats who opposed them.
Until this summer, there had been only 20 state-level recall elections in U.S. history, and the money poured into the recall campaigns has been something for the record books.
Mike Buelow, research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, estimates that candidates and outside groups spent as much as $37 million on the recalls.
With the recalls acting as somewhat of a rehearsal for 2012, experts say the spending could be a harbinger of record outlays next year.
(Writing by James Kelleher and Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Jeff Mayers; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston)