State Rep. Jennifer Shilling handily defeated Sen. Dan Kapanke on Tuesday in a historic recall election. But Democrats failed to win the three seats needed to take back control of the Senate and block Gov. Scott Walker's conservative agenda.
"Tonight we begin to restore balance and accountability to state government," Shilling told her supporters.
Though Democrats were declaring victory, University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin pointed out the shortfall.
"I don't think there's such a thing as a moral victory," Franklin said. "You either pick up the three seats and take control or you fall short."
Democrats took two seats Tuesday; they needed three.
Shilling, a six-term state Assembly representative from La Crosse, won with 55.4 percent of the votes, carrying four of the five counties in the 32nd state Senate district. Her widest margin was in La Crosse County, the largest, but she also took the rural vote in Vernon, Crawford and Richland counties. Only Monroe County, with its 12 municipalities, went for Kapanke.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim suggested Kapanke's loss was as much a result of a district trending blue as a statewide movement against Republicans.
"The district has been trending Democratic," Heim said. "He may be a victim of that trend."
Kapanke conceded in a speech to his supporters shortly after 10 p.m., saying his vote on the budget repair bill had made the state stronger even if it cost him his seat with just more than a year remaining in his second term.
"We may have lost this battle," he said, "but it looks like we are going to win the war."
Tuesday's election marked the local culmination of a politically tumultuous spring that turned contentious Feb. 11 when Gov. Scott Walker introduced a 138-page bill calling for significant financial concessions from public employees and elimination of most of their collective bargaining rights, among other things.
The budget repair bill sparked weeks of historic protests, with tens of thousands of people descending on Madison. Fourteen Senate Democrats fled the state in an effort to stall the bill, which Walker said he wanted passed in seven days.
The bill passed anyway, and recall efforts succeeded in bringing nine senators - six Republicans and three Democrats - up for special summer elections.
With control of the Legislature within reach, Democratic groups spearheaded massive efforts to get voters to the polls, and independent political groups - both state and national - poured nearly $1 million into the district, in an effort to frame the election as a referendum on Walker's agenda.
The strategy worked, at least in the 32nd.
"We need to make the state sane again," said Bill Paddy, a stay-at-home father from the town of Hamilton. "I think there's too much power right now with Walker. I think it needs to be tempered a bit."
Kapanke, who had won narrow victories in a generally blue district, was assumed to be the most vulnerable of the six GOP senators eligible for recall. Indeed, the effort to recall him was the first of a dozen to succeed when organizers collected nearly 22,000 valid signatures in just 30 days this spring. They needed only 15,558.
Kapanke trailed in polls and told a meeting of the La Crosse County GOP that the district's many public employees would need to sleep through the election for him to win. But support was strong, with more than $1 million flowing into his campaign coffers, enough to shatter the previous record for a state legislative race.
"I don't believe in kicking anyone out of office when they're doing the job they were elected to do," said Herb Hucke, 72, of La Crosse. "I believe he's doing the job he was asked to do and he's been treated unfairly."
Melanie Pehling said she put a note on her refrigerator to remember to vote.
"I know it was important to him," said the 54-year-old Kapanke supporter from the town of Hamilton.
Prior to Tuesday only four Wisconsin legislators had been subject to recalls; of those, only two were removed from office.
Kapanke, the 63-year-old owner of the La Crosse Loggers amateur baseball team, continued to defend his vote on the collective bargaining bill as the right choice - even if it cost him his office.
"I was willing to put my political career on the line, the governor as well, and do what's right for all the people in the great state of Wisconsin," Kapanke said Tuesday night. "I stand by that vote and by what the governor and the state legislature has done."
Shilling, 42, will now move to the Senate after serving a little more than 10 years in the Assembly, where she represented the city of La Crosse. A native of Madison, she attended University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and was elected to the La Crosse County board in 1990 before working as a legislative and congressional aide.
She will lose her seat on the Legislature's powerful budget-writing committee, but said her experience will serve her in the Senate where she vowed to be an advocate for western Wisconsin while working to restore political balance.
The future of the legislative session, Franklin points out, could hinge on the GOP's ability to vote as a bloc. Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican from Richland Center, was the one party member to vote against the budget repair bill and could be seen as a potential Democratic ally.
"Politics is complicated," Franklin said. "I think the bottom line is the Democrats needed three ... short of three you still leave the Republican leadership with the votes they need as long as they can keep their membership together."
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected from an earlier version which misattributed a statement made by Charles Franklin to Sen. Dale Schultz.