GREEN BAY, Wis (Reuters) - A Democratic state lawmaker forced to defend his seat in a recall election on Tuesday as a result of Wisconsin’s bitter battle over Republican curbs on collective bargaining declared victory in the vote.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, Dave Hansen appeared to have a commanding lead over Republican challenger David VanderLeest in the first of what will be nine special summer elections triggered by the union fight.
Unofficial results showed Hansen with 20,639 votes, nearly double the 10,601 garnered by VanderLeest.
“The best is yet to come,” Hansen told a raucous crowd of supporters, as around 200 began chanting “This is what democracy looks like.”
“This seems bigger than me. The support we got seems bigger than me. It’s about the people now. It’s about we the people. It’s about taking our state back. This is incredible,” Hansen later told journalists.
The union measure was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in March and severely restricted the union rights of most public workers and made them pay more for their healthcare and pensions.
The fractious debate in Wisconsin propelled the state to the front of a wider national political battle as Republicans who took control of many statehouses in 2010 mid-term elections moved aggressively to shrink government and made reining in public unions a top priority.
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 also forced teachers, correctional officers and other public employees to pay more for their healthcare and pensions.
VanderLeest had campaigned as a supporter of the union measure. Republican Governor Scott Walker, who was elected last fall as part of his party’s national surge in the mid-term elections, signed the bill into law in March.
Democrats saw the union legislation as an attack on workers and an effort to defund organized labor, one of the party’s biggest financial supporters.
Only police and firefighters were exempted from the controversial measure, which triggered the biggest opposition demonstrations in the state since the Vietnam War.
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.
In addition to Hansen, eight other state senators -- two Democrats who opposed the measure and six Republicans who supported it -- will defend their seats this summer, which could break the Republican hold on the state Senate.
“My main concern is that people stay fired up for the rest of the year,” said Steve Robbins, an electrician from Green Bay and a supporter of Hansen. “This should be a wake-up call to Walker, but it won’t be. That guy is on another planet.”
The six Republicans will all face voters in recalls scheduled for August 9. The two remaining Democrats will defend their seats in recalls scheduled for August 16.
No matter what happens once the last Senate recall is held in mid-August, Republicans will continue to have a majority in the lower house, or assembly, as well as control of the governor’s mansion. Democrats have vowed to recall Walker sometime next year.
In addition to the Hansen-VanderLeest race, two Republican primaries were held on Tuesday to pick the party challengers for recalls scheduled next month in two Democratic-controlled state Senate districts.
As a result of Tuesday’s primaries, Republican Jonathan Steitz will face Democratic state Senator Bob Wirch in the August 16 recall vote, and Tea Party activist Kim Simac will face Democratic state Senator Jim Holperin.
Additional reporting by Jeff Myers; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston