By Brendan O'Brien
GREEN BAY, Wis (Reuters) - Wisconsin voters headed to the polls on Tuesday for the first of nine summer recall elections triggered by the battle earlier this year over curbs on public-sector collective bargaining in the state.
In Tuesday's most important special election, Dave Hansen, a Democratic state senator from Green Bay, was defending his seat against Republican challenger David VanderLeest.
"We are feeling good, cautiously optimistic," said Jay Wadd, Hansen's chief of staff. He said the campaign was seeing better-than-expected turnout in districts where Hansen's support is strongest.
Two other recall-related elections were also taking place on Tuesday. But they were merely Republican primaries designed to pick the GOP challenger for recalls scheduled for next month in two Democratic controlled state Senate districts.
Hansen, who has served in the state Senate for a decade, was widely expected to survive the recall election because the state Republicans did not support VanderLeest's challenge and the candidate himself raised only $2,000 for his campaign.
"We are just hoping and praying our base comes out and supports what we are trying to do here," Vanderleest said in an interview at his campaign office Tuesday afternoon.
"It's a general referendum of whether you approve or disapprove of Senators going derelict of duty."
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 anti-union measure, which stripped teachers, correctional officers and other public employees in the state of most of their union bargaining rights.
The bill, which ultimately passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature and was signed into law by Republican Governor Scott Walker, also forces most public workers to pay more for their retirement and healthcare.
Only police and firefighters were exempted from the controversial new law.
The legislation triggered the biggest opposition demonstrations in the state since the Vietnam War.
The fractious debate over the measure propelled Wisconsin to the front of a wider national political battle as Republicans who took control of many statehouses in 2010 midterm elections moved aggressively to shrink government and made reining in public unions a top priority.
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.
Democrats saw the legislation as an attack on workers and an effort to defund organized labor, one of the party's biggest financial supporters.
In all, nine state senators -- three Democrats who opposed the measure and six Republicans who supported it -- will be forced to defend their seats in the special elections, which could break the Republican hold on the state Senate.
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 -- though Democrats have vowed to recall Walker sometime next year.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton)