WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Labor unions and their Republican opponents are pouring record amounts of cash into state ballot fights over workers' rights this year that could shape the political agenda in the 2012 election.
The contests in Wisconsin and Ohio -- both crucial "swing" states expected to be decided by slim margins when Democratic President Barack Obama runs for re-election next year -- pit newly elected Republican governors and state legislators against traditionally Democratic labor groups.
Both are seen as tests of union strength and Republican staying power after big Republican victories in 2010 state elections. The tens of millions of dollars being spent -- much of it coming from outside the two states -- are making them among the most expensive state votes ever.
Wisconsin residents voted on Tuesday in a recall election on whether to oust six Republican state senators in what is seen as a referendum on Republican Governor Scott Walker's aggressive fight to cut back state workers collective bargaining rights. Two Democratic state senators face recall votes on August 16 and a third Democrat held his seat in one last month.
If Republicans suffer a net loss of three seats, control of the state senate, which turned Republican in 2010, would shift back to the Democrats.
In Ohio, election officials ruled in July after a massive petition drive by pro-union groups that voters may decide in November whether the state should repeal a law signed by new Republican Governor John Kasich that also cut back negotiating rights for police, firefighters and other state workers.
The votes test the viability of the political strategy of attacking unions and the amount of money coming from outside groups shows that they see the national implications, said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin.
Failure could signal unions' decline as a political force, especially before what is expected to be a close national election focused on wages, jobs and a sputtering economy.
"It's an existential crisis for them," Franklin said. "If it can happen in those industrial states that have a union tradition, then it can happen anywhere. They are absolutely right to be scared to death about it."
Most handicappers gave Democrats the lead in two of Tuesday's six contests in Wisconsin, one was clearly Republican, two leaned Republican and one was likely to go Republican, Franklin said.
MORE BATTLES AHEAD
Fights have been vitriolic. In March, Wisconsin faced massive pro-union protests that led to recall petitions and Democratic state senators even fled the state for three weeks to stall legislative action on the Republican labor proposals.
Republicans say they must cut back union benefits to rein in out-of-control spending and balance budgets. State workers and their allies call them cynical efforts to weaken groups that have been bastions of Democratic support, and promise more fights to come.
"For the labor movement, in particular in 2012, the focus is going to be to a greater extent than ever what happens in state legislative races," said Michael Podhorzer, political director at the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, representing 12.2 million members.
Experts said the money involved is unprecedented.
About $33 million has been spent in Wisconsin on the nine recalls, about twice the total spent in 2010 on well over 100 state legislative races, said Michael Buelow, research director at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The money is about evenly divided between the two sides.
In Ohio, a pro-union group gathered 1.3 million signatures, although they needed only 231,000, to back the repeal vote.
Spending in Ohio is also expected to skyrocket. The Columbus Dispatch newspaper reported that a coalition of Kasich confidants and other Republicans alone had a budget of $20 million to fight the repeal.
Republicans said the elected officials were only keeping promises to address state budget deficits that they made during campaigns that they won.
"They literally campaigned on these reforms and they are keeping their promises to taxpayers," said Chris Maloney, communications director of the Ohio Republican Party.
Polls show Ohio voters oppose the union bill -- a recent survey by Quinnipiac University gave its opponents a 56 percent to 32 percent lead. But Republicans plan an ad blitz touting more popular pieces of the measure, such as requiring public workers to pay 15 percent of their healthcare costs.
Democrats said they expected to benefit even if they lose the votes.
"I think the national implications for the Republicans in this situation are lose-lose," said Democratic strategist Greg Haas, saying Republicans risked losing the votes of thousands of police, firefighters and teachers.
"If these guys are reading that they can somehow win this thing, it's the first time I've suspected massive business people in three-piece suits of smoking crack," Haas said.