MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A stand by Wisconsin Republicans against a massive effort to oust them from power could reverberate across the country as the battle over union rights and the conservative revolution heads toward the 2012 presidential race.
Democrats succeeded in taking two Wisconsin state Senate seats away from Republican incumbents on Tuesday but fell one short of what they needed to seize majority control of the chamber.
Republicans saw it as a big win for Gov. Scott Walker and an affirmation of his conservative agenda, the hallmark of which has been his successful push to strip most collective bargaining rights from public workers.
Walker told The Associated Press on Wednesday that even though his party managed to retain control of the Legislature, he thinks the recall election results show that voters want both parties to work together on jobs and the economy.
"People still want us to focus on those two priorities," Walker said. "They want us to work together."
Walker said he planned to meet soon with leaders from both parties to discuss areas where they could work together. The invitation was greeted with skepticism from Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca.
"It's bipartisan action, not bipartisan rhetoric that people are looking for," Barca said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who will preside over a razor thin 17-16 GOP majority should two Democratic senators manage to win their own recall elections next week, echoed Walker's talking points.
"Republicans are going to continue doing what we promised the people of Wisconsin — improve the economy and get Wisconsin moving back in the right direction," Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement after the victory.
Democrats and union leaders tried to make the best of the historic GOP wins. There had been only 13 other successful recalls of state-level office holders nationwide since 1913.
"The fact of the matter remains that, fighting on Republican turf, we have begun the work of stopping the Scott Walker agenda," said Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.
Phil Neuenfeldt, the president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said voters sent a message that there is a growing movement to reclaim the middle class.
"Let's be clear, anyway you slice it, this is an unprecedented victory," he said.
Still, it was far less than what Democrats set out to achieve. And while they still plan to move ahead with recalling Walker, maintaining momentum for that effort, which can't start until November, will be difficult.
Sen. Luther Olsen, one of the four Republicans who won, said he hoped the victories would "take the wind out of the recall for Walker, but I'm not sure."
Tate, the Democratic Party chairman, said Wednesday that Democratic gains showed how vulnerable Walker is and that the recall effort would continue with the election taking place in November, timed to coincide with expected high Democratic turnout in the presidential race.
Walker said he would "leave it up to the pundits to decide" what the recall elections meant for efforts targeting him, but he believed he ultimately will be judged on whether he can fulfill his campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs in the state over four years.
Four Republican senators held on to their seats Tuesday. They were Olsen and Sens. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Rob Cowles of Allouez, and Alberta Darling of River Hills. Two Republicans — Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse — were defeated. Former deputy mayor of Oshkosh Jessica King beat Hopper and Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling beat Kapanke.
A ninth senator, Democrat Dave Hansen of Green Bay, won his recall election last month.
Collectively, more than $31 million has been spent on the recalls, largely from outside conservative groups, unions and others.
Republican and Democratic strategists were leery of reading too much into the results heading into next year's campaign in which Wisconsin is expected to be a key swing state.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the results could provide "some early radar warnings" about the 2012 races, and that he expects the conservatives "to fight back like an angry badger."
Lehane said Wisconsin's tumultuous year since November's elections has been a microcosm of the current "rollercoaster" era of U.S. politics.
Wisconsin voters had mixed emotions about the necessity of the recalls.
Wayne Boland, 41, a Whitefish Bay man who works in marketing for a medical equipment maker, said he voted for the Republican Darling "not because I entirely agree with everything the Republican Party has done or the governor" but because they're working toward addressing the state's problems.
Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office in the 2010 election just nine months ago.
Democrats had hoped enough wins in the recalls would have allowed them to block the Republican agenda, but the GOP will hold on to their majorities that have allowed them to rapidly pass bills through the Legislature.
The elections were also closely watched in other states undergoing similar partisan battles.
A coalition of unions and labor-friendly groups fighting a Wisconsin-style collective bargaining overhaul in Ohio said the outcome of the recall elections will have little bearing on whether Ohio's law is repealed this fall.
The effort in Wisconsin was about recalling specific Republicans who voted for the anti-union bill while the push in Ohio is about repealing the law itself. That makes it difficult to compare the two states, said We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas.
Supporters of the Ohio law also are distancing their state from the fight in Wisconsin.
"We're not focused on Wisconsin, and Ohioans aren't looking to another state to tell them where they should stand," said Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, a group defending the collective bargaining law.
Ohioans will vote Nov. 8 on whether to accept or reject the union-limiting law signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in March that limits bargaining rights for more than 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other government employees.
Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio's Constitution makes no provision for recalling elected officials.
Associated Press writers Colin Fly in Menomonee Falls, Wis., Marilynn Marchione in Whitefish Bay, Wis., Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Henry C. Jackson in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.