Madison, Wis. – Badger State Democrats gave Republicans a scare on Tuesday, picking up two state-senate seats held by GOP incumbents. But by midnight, their quest to snag the three seats they needed to take control of the Wisconsin senate fell short. Sen. Alberta Darling — a key partner of first-term Republican governor Scott Walker — defeated Democrat Sandy Pasch, leaving the Grand Old Party with a slim, 17-16 edge in the upper chamber.
For months, Darling’s District 10 seat was considered by Democrats to be the keystone of their recall effort against Walker’s legislative allies. Mike Tate, the state Democratic chair, dubbed Darling’s prospective defeat the “crown jewel” of the August elections. Over $8 million poured into the suburban Milwaukee district, making it the priciest of the six GOP recall campaigns. In the final days, union workers canvassed small towns such as Glendale and Thiensville, hoping to lift Pasch over the well-known lawmaker.
Yet it was not to be. Pasch led the early returns, but by late evening, Darling began to pull ahead when votes were tallied in GOP-heavy Waukesha County. Pasch, for her part, did well in late-reporting slices of Milwaukee County, but it was not enough: Darling won, 54 percent to 46 percent. Tate, in a statement to reporters, pledged not to challenge the results. “Though we believe that Sandy Pasch was able to battle Alberta Darling to a virtual tie, on her turf, we will not pursue questions of irregularities,” he said.
This was not Darling’s first close race. Three years ago, when Barack Obama carried her socially moderate, fiscally conservative district, she won reelection by approximately 1,000 votes. The five other Republicans targeted for recall also came from swing districts. Both Sen. Dan Kapanke (District 32) and Sen. Randy Hopper (District 18) lost their seats. Kapanke has leaned more to the left in recent years and GOP insiders knew his would be a tough race. Hopper was plagued by personal troubles, namely his marital separation and subsequent relationship with a state employee.
Aside from Darling, Republican senators Luther Olsen (District 14), Rob Cowles (District 2), and Sheila Harsdorf (District 10) also won. Those four victories do more than enable Republicans to keep their state-senate majority — they give a real boost to Governor Walker, who has seen his approval ratings sink since enacting restrictions on public-employee collective bargaining earlier this year. Losing two seats, of course, was nothing to celebrate, but Wisconsin Republicans appear to be relieved that the recalls were not a political massacre.
In an interview with National Review Online earlier this week, Darling was optimistic about the future for Walker’s agenda, even as Big Labor and progressive activists continue to target Republicans. “I hope what happens is that we become more like Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels did what he did,” she said. Daniels, she explained, championed fiscal reform and “then saw his poll numbers get really down, really bad. But a year or two later, he ran and got 60 percent of the vote. That’s what I’m hoping will happen here, that people recognize that what we did is working.”