MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Wisconsin voters head to the polls on Tuesday for the first of what will be nine summer recall elections triggered by the battle earlier this year over curbs on public-sector collective bargaining in the state.
In Tuesday's special election, Dave Hansen, a Democratic state senator from Green Bay, will defend his seat against Republican challenger David VanderLeest.
Hansen was one of 14 Democratic lawmakers who left Wisconsin for nearly three weeks this winter in an effort to thwart Republicans from passing the measure, which stripped teachers, correctional officers and other public employees in the state of most of their union bargaining rights.
The bill, which ultimately passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature and was signed into law by Republican Governor Scott Walker, also forces most public workers to pay more for their retirement and healthcare.
Only police and firefighters were exempted from the controversial new law.
In all, nine state senators -- three Democrats who opposed the measure and six Republicans who supported it -- will be forced to defend their seats in the special elections, which could break the Republican hold on the state Senate.
The legislation triggered the biggest opposition demonstrations in the state since the Vietnam War.
The fractious debate over the measure propelled Wisconsin to the front of a wider national political battle as Republicans who took control of many statehouses in 2010 midterm elections moved aggressively to shrink government and made reining in public unions a top priority.
Walker said the compensation and bargaining rights the public workers had enjoyed were unaffordable in an era of soaring state budget deficits, and defended the measure as necessary to help the state fix its finances.
Democrats saw the legislation as an attack on workers and an effort to defund organized labor, one of the party's biggest financial supporters.
If Democrats gain just three of the seats at stake once the final votes are cast, they will take control of the upper house and have a better chance at thwarting Walker's far-reaching legislative agenda, which thus far has also included passage of new gun regulations and a voter ID law favored by conservatives.
Republicans will continue to have a majority in the lower house, or assembly, as well as control of the governor's mansion -- though Democrats have vowed to recall Walker sometime next year.
While Tuesday's election is the first full-blown recall election in the state this summer, it isn't the first recall-related one.
Last week, voters went to the polls in six unusual Democratic primaries connected to the effort to oust the six GOP lawmakers.
The primaries were unusual because the six party-approved Democrats had to beat back a challenge from six Republicans who ran as Democrats in order to give the targeted Republican incumbents more time to campaign, raise money and maintain their party's hold on the state Senate.
In all six races, the real Democrats beat the ringers and will now seek to unseat six incumbent Republicans in recall elections on August 9.
The two other Democratic senators subject to recall will defend their seats a week later on August 16.
Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton