Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won a vote to keep his job on Tuesday, surviving a recall effort that turned the Republican into a conservative icon and his state into the first battleground in a bitter, expensive election year.
Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D). That made Walker the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election; two others had failed.
Exit polls showed that Democrats had captured nearly 69 percent of the voters who made up their minds in the past few days. But it wasn’t enough.
Instead, the night provided a huge boost for Walker — as well as Republicans in Washington and state capitals who have embraced the same energetic, austere brand of fiscal conservatism as a solution for recession and debt. In a state known for a strong progressive tradition, Walker defended his policies against the full force of the labor movement and the modern left.
And he won, again.
Walker clearly relished his victory, saying, “Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions.”
But the governor also struck a conciliatory note.
“Tomorrow we are no longer opponents, tomorrow we are Wisconsinites,” he said. He added that he will invite all members of the legislature over “for some brats and some burgers, and maybe a little bit of good Wisconsin beer as well.”
Barrett conceded the race, saying, “We are a state that has become deeply divided.” He added that both sides ”need to listen to each other and try to do what’s right for everyone in the state.”
Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R) also survived a recall vote.
Walker’s race was considered a crucial test of both parties’ strategies for this fall’s presidential election. For Republicans, that meant making the most of a major fundraising advantage: Walker out-raised his opponent 7 to 1 in a campaign that cost more than $63.5 million, a state record. That foreshadowed the edge that free-spending super PACs could give Republican candidate Mitt Romney in November.
For Democrats, that meant using a “ground game” to reach voters, with door-to-door campaigning, phone calls and media targeting. Over the weekend, Barrett’s supporters knocked on 948,000 doors and made 890,000 calls.
On Tuesday, with voter turnout high, both sides saw evidence that their strategies worked. In the fall, they will do it all again in Wisconsin because the Badger State is projected to be a tossup between Romney and President Obama.
Wisconsin has gone Democratic in recent presidential elections, and exit polling on Tuesday showed that Obama still holds an advantage. Fifty-one percent of voters said they will back Obama, while 44 percent said they will support Romney.
On Tuesday, Romney and Obama seemed reluctant to link themselves to the close Wisconsin election, fearing they’d be associated with a loss. Romney did not mention the state in campaign events earlier in the day. Obama limited himself to a supportive tweet from his campaign’s Twitter account: “It’s Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow, and I’m standing by Tom Barrett,” he wrote on Monday.
After the results were in, Romney issued a statement celebrating Walker’s win.
“Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back — and prevail — against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses,” he said. “Tonight voters said ‘no’ to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and ‘yes’ to fiscal responsibility and a new direction.”
Voters came out in huge numbers Tuesday, forming long lines at polling places from urban Milwaukee to rural areas in the northern part of the state. Estimated voter turnout was 2.4 million — more than in 2010, but lower than the nearly 3 million in 2008.
At the First United Church of Christ in Green Bay, a steady stream of voters filed in, past cookies with patriotic decorations that had been baked by the volunteer at the front desk.
“I voted for [Walker] in 2010 because I realized we have to do something about the deficit. I voted for him in the recall because I don’t believe recall elections are meant for what they’re doing with it,” said Katy Tomlanovich, who teaches at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. She said recall elections should be reserved for politicians who commit gross malfeasance, not for those who make unpopular decisions.
Tomlanovich said she plans to vote for Obama in November but cast a ballot for the Republican on Tuesday. “Scott Walker is actually doing something about [spending], and I think he should be allowed to serve the rest of his term.”
Walker, a former Milwaukee county executive, was elected in 2010, part of a wave of Republican governors who promised to rein in state spending. He has done more than most, joining with a GOP-led legislature to cut spending and strip most collective-bargaining powers from unions representing state workers.