Another campaign in the battle for Wisconsin is getting under way today. Republicans won the legislative struggle in March, and then narrowly won the judicial election in April that ensured their collective bargaining reform would not be struck down by liberal judges.

But now the state senate is up for grabs. And the campaign begins today with six Democratic primary contests in Republican-held state senate districts. Each primary is a race between the Democratic party's preferred candidate and a "fake" or "protest" candidate put up by the Republican party.

What did Republicans gain by running candidates in Democratic primaries? An extra month of campaigning and, more importantly, legislating. Without a primary challenge, today would have been general election day, which means Republicans could have lost the senate and the chance to pass their redistricting plan and other legislation they haven't gotten to quite yet.

No one expects a "protest" candidate to upset a Democrat in any of the primaries, and all six "real" Democrats will advance to August 9 recall elections against Republicans.

There are also three Democratic incumbents facing recall elections. Dave Hansen, a Democratic senator from the Green Bay area, will face a general election next Tuesday, July 19 because only one Republican candidate qualified for the ballot (the GOP's preferred candidate fell a few signatures short of the 400 needed to get on the ballot). There are primaries in the two other Democratic districts on July 19, which means that the general election will be August 16 for those two Democratic senators. (The elections are being held on different days because recall petitions against the Democrats were certified later than petitions against Republicans).

Democrats need to make a net gain of three seats to take control of the senate. Sean Trende had a good district-by-district rundown here and here earlier this year. Trende highlighted the three most vulnerable GOP districts in the wake of conservative David Prosser's victory in the state supreme court election:

District 18, Sen. Randy Hopper (R) (Bush 57%, McCain 47%, Walker 57%, Prosser 53%, Hopper 2008 = 50.1%). The fundamentals of Hopper's district, based around Fond du Lac and Oshkosh, would normally point to at best a "somewhat vulnerable" rating. But Hopper's estranged wife recently claimed that he lives outside of the district with his girlfriend and has reportedly joined the recall drive. Hopper - who filed for divorce last August - denies the allegations, but this is obviously an inauspicious time for this particular batch of family laundry to be hanging out on the clothesline. Hopper will likely face a rematch with his 2008 opponent, who nearly unseated him that year.

District 32, Sen. Dan Kapanke (R) (Bush 46%, McCain 38%, Walker 50%, Prosser 42%, Kapanke 2008 = 51.4%). Last November, Kapanke came a few points from unseating seven-term congressional incumbent Ron Kind. Now Kapanke is in the fight of his political life. His district is centered on LaCrosse County, in the southwest portion of the state. LaCrosse showed one of the sharpest swings away from Scott Walker of any county in the state - and Walker barely carried this district in 2010 to begin with.

Recall proponents have filed the requisite number of signatures to trigger an election, and he has already drawn a high-profile challenger for the recall election. He won in 2008 while John McCain was getting only 38 percent of the vote, so it would be a mistake to write him off completely, but he is clearly in trouble.

District 10, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R) (Bush 51%, McCain 48%, Walker 58%, Prosser 49%, Harsdorf 2008 = 56.4%,). Harsdorf's district is located in the far northwest bulge of the state. It is reasonably Republican, but swung heavily against Prosser, who barely ran ahead of McCain in the district. [...] Still, she won handily in the bad Republican year of 2008, suggesting that she may have a reservoir of goodwill to draw upon, and the district is generally a bit more Republican than the rest of the state. She will be a formidable opponent.

So it's entirely possible that Republicans could lose three seats--and control of the Senate--on August 9. But they could come back and win a Democratic seat on August 16 to regain control the senate. Here's Trende's on of the GOP's top target, Jim Holperin:

District 12, Sen. Jim Holperin (D) (Bush 53%, McCain 46%, Walker 57%, Prosser 55%, Holperin 2008 = 51%). This district is the inverse of the 32nd. Jim Holperin narrowly won in the big Democratic year of 2008, and occupies a northeastern district that gave Prosser virtually identical numbers to Scott Walker.

What happens if Democrats take control of the state senate? Wisconsin will likely face legislative gridlock, much as we've seen in Washington, D.C. following the GOP capture of the House of Representatives. But Governor Scott Walker's collective bargaining reform won't go anywhere.

So, in terms of keeping the law on the books, the judicial election this spring was much more important than the senate recall elections. But a takeover of the senate would be very significant. It would certainly embolden Democrats and unions. It would make a run for governor more appealing to Russ Feingold, the Democratic party's strongest candidate.

The earliest Walker may face a recall is this coming January, a year after he took office and six months after his collective bargaining reform took effect and began to yield positive and relatively painless results for Wisconsin taxpayers and school districts.

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