MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin Democrats won a preliminary victory on Tuesday in a bid to unseat Republican lawmakers who voted for a controversial anti-union law in the first of a series of special recall elections.
Party-backed candidates won in each of six state Senate districts in Tuesday’s vote, essentially a Democratic primary but with an odd twist that took place ahead of a formal August recall vote.
The candidates had to beat back unusual primary challenges 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.
Unofficial results posted on websites run by election officials in the counties where the six races were run showed the Democratic Party-backed candidates won all six races, and Democrats declared victory.
Running tallies late on Tuesday showed double-digit Democratic leads in all but one race, where the Democratic candidate led by a smaller but still substantial margin.
Unlike many other U.S. states, Wisconsin has open primaries and no official party registration. So Republicans can run as Democrats and vote in Democratic primaries, and vice versa for Democrats.
The six Democrats who won on Tuesday -- Nancy Nusbaum, state Representative Sandy Pasch, Shelly Moore, state Representative Fred Clark, Jessica King and Jennifer Shilling -- will now seek to unseat six incumbent Republicans in recall elections on August 9.
In total, six Republican senators who supported the anti-union measure, and three Democrats who opposed it, will be forced to defend their seats this summer after recall petitions were signed by thousands of disgruntled voters.
The law, which dismantled key bargaining rights for most Wisconsin public sector employees, triggered the biggest opposition demonstrations in the state since the Vietnam War.
The fractious debate over the union 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.
The union measure, championed by new Republican Governor Scott Walker, eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public workers in the state and required them to pay more for pensions and health coverage.
Walker said the compensation and bargaining rights the public workers had enjoyed were unaffordable in an era of soaring state budget deficits and he defended the measure as necessary to help the state fix its finances.
The first full recall election will take place next Tuesday, July 19, when Dave Hansen, a Democratic state senator from Green Bay, will defend his seat against the Republican challenger David VanderLeest.
The incumbent Republicans facing recall are Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke.
Normally, there is little reason to cross party lines in a primary election. But the Republicans who took control of the statehouse last fall and quickly passed the collective bargaining law for public sector workers now find themselves fighting to retain control of the Senate.
Democrat Pasch, who will now run for the Eighth Senate district seat held by Darling, called Tuesday’s vote “an overwhelming rejection of Republican dirty tactics.”
“I am proud that the people of the eighth state Senate district have stood up to the cynical ploys of my opponents,” she said. “I look forward to holding honest, insightful debates on the issues with Senator Darling in this summer’s recall election.”
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 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.
Writing by James B. Kelleher; Additional reporting by Karin Matz in Chicago, David Bailey in Minneapolis and Jeff Mayers in Madison; editing by Cynthia Johnston