MADISON, Wis. -- All eyes will be on Republican Gov. Scott Walker as he fights for his political life in the June 5 recall election, but a handful of undercard recall races could transform Wisconsin politics just as dramatically in the long run.
While folks across the state pull the lever for Walker or his Democratic challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, pockets of voters in southeastern, northwestern and central Wisconsin will decide recall elections that could hand Democrats control of the state Senate.
Democrats wouldn't be able to do anything with their majority since lawmakers aren't scheduled to return to work until next year. But they'd have the high ground heading into the November elections, when Senate control will be at stake again heading into the state's budget-setting year.
"It's absolutely easier to hold (the Senate) than to take it," said Brad Wojciechowski, communications director for the state Democratic Party's Senate committee.
Dan Romportl, executive director of the state GOP's Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, said the recalls are pointless and the real fight will come in November.
"People are realizing it's more about Democrats wanting to take a temporary majority in the Senate and achieve that moral victory," Romportl said. "I don't think these (elections) were warranted or necessary. I think they're fairly frivolous and politically motivated."
Tensions between Wisconsin conservatives and liberals began boiling as early as 2010 after Walker won the governor's office and Republicans swept to control of the Senate and Assembly. The tipping point came in February 2011 when Walker, barely two months into his job, introduced a contentious plan stripping most public sector union workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.
The governor insisted he had to make the changes to help balance the budget and hand local governments the flexibility they needed to deal with sharp cuts in state aid. Democrats say the move was calculated to crush organized labor.
Democrats filed recall petitions in January, forcing Walker, Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four GOP senators into elections.
The marquee Senate matchup pits Senate Republican leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, against Democrat Lori Compas, a Fort Atkinson photographer.
Two other Republican senators will fight for their political lives on June 5 as well. Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, faces a rematch with former Sen. John Lehman, of Racine, who Wanggaard defeated in 2010. Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, meanwhile, will square off against former state Rep. Kristen Dexter, D-Eau Claire.
Democrats also triggered a recall against Sen. Pam Galloway, R-Wausau, but Galloway resigned rather than defend her seat. State elections officials decided the recall in her district would go on regardless. Rep. Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, will face Rep. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, for the open seat.
Galloway's resignation left the Senate divided 16-16 between the parties. That means if any Republican loses on June 5, Democrats will control the chamber.
Fitzgerald, who has served in the Senate for nearly 20 years, was the GOP's public face during the union battle. Ignoring the protests, Fitzgerald and a handful of other top GOP lawmakers hastily convened a committee meeting to strip the fiscal elements out of the plan, enabling the Senate to pass the measure without a full quorum. Democrats complained the maneuver violated the open-meetings law, but the state Supreme Court's conservative majority ultimately ruled everything was OK.
"He campaigned on jobs and economic development. What we got were divisive policies that polarized our state and prevented us from focusing on jobs," Compas said. "He's been a Madison insider for the last 17 years and he's out of touch with his own district."
Fitzgerald countered that the union restrictions will help the state in long run, saying the tables were tipped too much toward public workers. He said all Democrats really care about is returning to power and voters will side with the GOP because they're sick of endless recalls.
"People do not believe this is a valid use of the recall," Fitzgerald said. "It becomes irritating for people in to be in this perpetual campaign mode in Wisconsin. They've had it. That's why we're going to have success. We need to accept the reforms and move forward."
But their new majority would mean little beyond bragging rights, at least for a while. Lawmakers aren't scheduled to return to Madison until the next legislative session begins in January. Democrats couldn't introduce any legislation in the interim even if they gained control of the Senate.
Barrett has vowed to call a special legislative session this summer to restore public union rights if he bests Walker, but Republicans still control the Assembly and would block any Democratic initiatives. Senate Democrats could call an extraordinary session themselves, but they'd need the Assembly to do anything. Checkmate, Republicans.
And as soon as the calendar turns to June 6, Republicans will think about taking back the Senate in November. Republicans will have an edge then, too. New legislative districts the GOP drew last year will come into play.
If Democrats go into the elections with a recall-generated majority in the Senate and manage to hold it, Republicans maintain Assembly control and Walker is still in office, political gridlock will ensue and no one will be able to advance an agenda. If Walker survives the recall, Republicans hold the Assembly and recapture the Senate, the recalls will amount to nothing.