It took until the early morning hours Wednesday, but Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling successfully defended her 8th Senate District seat from Democratic challenger Rep. Sandy Pasch by posting an eight-point victory in a key recall election.
“There were so many guns pointed at my back because I helped lead the fight to get the state back on track,” Darling told supporters at her victory party in Thiensville.
Darling announced her victory early at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. She joined three other Republican senators who also fought off recall challenges around the state. Final, unofficial totals compiled by the Associated Press show Darling collected 39,471 votes, or 54 percent, and Pasch tallied 34,096 votes, or 46 percent.
“In 2010, voters sent a strong message that they are tired of massive deficits, massive tax hikes, taxes and job loss,” Darling said in her victory statement. “They are sending the same message loud and clear tonight. The days of kicking the can down the road are over in our state. The voters have spoken once and for all.”
Of the six recall elections Tuesday, the Pasch-Darling race was the last one to be decided — and political observers from around the country watched as the results slowly came in.
The Democrats needed to pickup at least three seats Tuesday in order to have a chance of taking control of the state Senate. Republican senators Robert Cowles, Luther Olsen and Sheila Harsdorf successfully defended their seats, while Democrats picked up two seats with victories from Jessica King and Jennifer Shilling.
That meant the Democrats' only hope of getting control of the Senate rested on a Pasch victory.
In the race, Darling took an early lead and was overcome by Pasch, but the scales finally tipped in the incumbent’s favor when results from Menomonee Falls came in. In that Republican stronghold, Darling picked up close to 4,500 votes, winning in that village by a 2-to-1 margin.
Mischief in Waukesha County?
Among the last results to come in were from Menomonee Falls in Waukesha County, where a ballot miscount in the April state Supreme Court race prompted an investigation into Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus’ office. When results were slow to come in Tuesday night, Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Graeme Zielinski called a press conference and accused Nickolaus, a former Republican aide, of tampering with the ballots in this election.
In fact, even though Pasch was losing by thousands of votes and had virtually no chance of winning, she left her campaign party in Brown Deer without conceding the race.
However, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate issued a statement earlier Wednesday saying the party would not pursue any concerns about possible wrongdoing.
"On Tuesday night, Wisconsin spoke loud and clear with the recall of two entrenched Republicans. This is an accomplishment of historic proportions that I do not wish to be overshadowed by statements regarding results in the 8th Senate District,” Tate said in a statement. “Though we believe that Sandy Pasch was able to battle Alberta Darling to a virtual tie, on her turf, we will not pursue questions of irregularities."
Ground game a key to victory
Darling gave a lot of credit to her campaign manager, Andrew Davis, and his staff for running one of the most effective ground games in the state. Davis, who has been organizing the campaign for months, said he knew all along they had the right strategy.
“We knew it was all about turnout, and you can do as many forums and debates as you want, but it’s one-on-one voter contact between Alberta and the voter, and that’s what won this race,” Andrew Davis said. “She got out there and defended this budget and reforms in the budget…and every week people learned more and more that this was working.”
Gov. Scott Walker hailed the victory of Darling and other Republicans, saying that the message from voters is clear.
“Last November, the voters sent a message that they wanted fiscal responsibility and a focus on jobs,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “In our first months in office, we balanced a $3.6 billion deficit and our state created 39,000 new jobs. It's clear the voters also want us to work together to grow jobs and improve our state.”
Recall organizer: 'We changed things'
The recall election was sparked by 30,000 residents signing petitions to recall Darling. That movement was spearheaded by Shorewood resident Kristopher Rowe, who said Tuesday that he saw more energy in this movement than when he volunteered with President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“No matter what happens tonight, we changed things,” Rowe said. “We made history. They have to listen to us now.”
Some Republican voters at the polls Tuesday said they thought the recall election was unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars. One of those voters was Jim Bowen, of Whitefish Bay.
“If people don’t like the way somebody votes on one vote, I think we should be more sensitive to waiting for election cycles. That’s what they’re there for,” he said. “These are expensive, and I think the money should be spent in a better way.”
While limitations on collective bargaining rights sparked the recall movement that collected 30,000 signatures and forced the election, the issue took a back seat in the advertisements put out by Pasch’s campaign and the third-party groups that supported her and attacked Darling for cuts to education, health care and other items in Walker’s budget.
Some Democratic voters remained upset over collective bargaining as they cast their ballots for Pasch Tuesday.
“As a retired school teacher, I’m appalled by what’s happening and what could happen without collective bargaining,” said one Whitefish Bay voter who asked to remain anonymous.
On the other side of the fence, a conservative said he voted for Darling because she supported the budget repair bill that limited collective bargaining rights.
“I don’t want the unions to run our state because the unions are corrupt,” said the Whitefish Bay voter, who did not want to be named.
Darling’s support came mostly from the west end of the district, such as Menomonee Falls, Germantown, as well as other North Shore communities, like Mequon and Thiensville.
"I voted for Alberta Darling, as I have in the past because I feel spending is out of control and I believe in what she's saying. I want to keep that Republican seat," said Lynn Miller of Germantown.
Pasch won in Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee, Glendale, Brown Deer, Fox Point and Bayside.
At the Cahill Park polling center in Whitefish Bay, Jane Collins said she voted for Darling in the past election, but on Tuesday, she voted for Pasch.
“When Darling seemed to fall in lock step with Walker’s agenda, I just decided that she no longer is looking out for the individuals. She is looking out for the party. It’s very disappointing," she said. “You can go to the parade and wave and shake hands all you want, but it doesn’t mean you are listening to the people.”
The race drew heavy media coverage and $8 million in campaign spending. Overall, more than $30 million was spent in all nine recall elections in the state.
Turnout in Milwaukee a problem for Pasch
Voters in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee didn’t show up like they have in past elections. In Tuesday’s election there were 5,912 votes case there, with 4,666 going to Pasch. The total mimics the April Supreme court race where 4,528 votes were cast, with candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg collecting 3,120 votes.
However, in the 2010 gubernatorial race there were 6,760 votes cast in the district, with 5,128 going to Democrat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. And 10,361 votes were cast in the 2008 presidential election, when then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama took 8,525 votes.
Pasch also easily carried another stronghold in Shorewood where 4,582 of the 6,212 votes cast went for her. The turnout was slightly higher than the Supreme Court race total of 5,532 votes cast, but short of the 6,781 votes tallied in the governor’s race and 8,817 cast in the 2008 presidential election.
Darling also saw some declines in turnout in areas that staunchly support her. In Tuesday’s race there were 8,350 votes cast in Germantown with 6,030 going to Darling. That’s up from the 6,105 votes cast in the Supreme Court race where Justice David Prosser took 4,595 of those, but down from the 9,419 cast in the 2010 gubernatorial race and down from the 12,051 votes cast in the 2008 presidential election.
Menomonee Falls continued to be a strong district for Darling, but Democrats had a better performance there than in recent elections. Pasch collected 34 percent of the 11,663 votes cast there Tuesday. In comparison, Kloppenburg only got 28 percent of the vote in April and Barrett got 31 percent of the vote last year.
It was the best result for a Democrat in the Falls since Obama took 39 percent of the vote in 2008.
Fox Point is continuing its trend of swinging left to right politically the past several election cycles, after Pasch eked out a victory there Tuesday. Of the 3,526 votes cast in that municipality, Pasch picked up 1,843 votes to Darling’s 1,683 votes. Prosser won Fox Point with 1,537 votes out of 2,979 cast there. The district swung Democrat in the 2010 governor’s race and the 2008 presidential race.