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Wisconsin recall: no upsets yet, but three more votes to go

The first day of Wisconsin recall voting ended Tuesday with few surprises.

In all six districts where voters are attempting to unseat Republican state senators – in protest over their support of GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union budget bill – Democrats won their primary battles against “fake” Democratic opponents put up by Republicans to delay the process.

A victory by any of the “protest” candidates would have been a major upset.

Turnout was unusually high for such a strange election – a summer primary for a state Senate seat without a “real” opposition candidate.

While there’s no precedent to compare it to, tens of thousands of voters turned out in all six districts. Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, ran the numbers against April’s state Supreme Court election, which was also seen as a proxy referendum on Governor Walker’s budget legislation. That election generated twice the normal turnout.

Tuesday’s turnout was 55 to 88 percent of that in the Supreme Court race, Professor Franklin says. “I find that astonishing,” he adds.

The vote Tuesday was just the first of four to be held in nine districts around the state in July and August, part of an unusual and complex effort to unseat lawmakers from both parties over their role in the contentious battle over collective-bargaining powers.

The six Republicans being challenged were supposed to defend their seats Tuesday, but to buy the state senators more time, Wisconsin’s Republican Party put up protest candidates in all six districts, forcing a primary and putting off a general election until Aug. 9.

No one really expected one of those candidates to win, but in Wisconsin, voters can participate in any primary regardless of party affiliation, so it was a possibility. In the end, the actual Democratic candidate won by double digits in every district except one.

Still, the fact that the protest candidates put up by Republicans still garnered at least 30 percent of the vote in each district – and in one case 46 percent – is a sign that Republican voters are also energized.

“Republicans were willing to come out to vote for protest candidates even in races that were more or less foregone conclusions,” says Franklin. “If we’re looking at the tea leaves, these are pretty strong tea leaves that August will have a high turnout.”

Next Tuesday, voters in three more districts will go to the polls, this time as part of an effort to unseat Democratic state senators, whose constituents are angry that they fled to Illinois to avoid voting on the budget bill.

Two of those races will be primaries as well – though Democrats didn’t put up protest candidates – but one will be a general election. In that race, state Sen. Dave Hansen (D) will defend his seat against GOP challenger David VanderLeest. Senator Hansen is expected to win, in part because the Republicans failed to get their preferred candidate on the ballot, in what was widely viewed as a major party error.

“A lot of people think, there went the opportunity to ensure that they wouldn’t lose the net three seats,” says Jeff Mayers, president of, a nonpartisan political website based in Madison. To take control of the state Senate, Democrats would need to win three seats.

The final election of the recall season will be on Aug. 17, when the remaining two Democratic state senators will defend their seats in a general election.

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