Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker prevailed in his reelection bid Tuesday after facing the state’s polarized electorate for the third time in four years, a victory that thrust him into the upper echelon of 2016 Republican presidential contenders.
Walker was ahead of Democrat Mary Burke by six points with 77 percent of precincts reporting. His strong margin came after a hard-fought campaign that centered on Wisconsin’s uneven economic recovery and drew nearly $24 million worth of warring television ads.
Addressing a jubilant crowd, Walker cast his win as a defeat of “big-government special interests.”
“The folks in Washington like this top-down approach that’s old and artificial and outdated that says ‘Government knows best,’ ” he declared. “We believe you should build the economy from the ground up.”
The election’s high stakes were underscored by the intense national interest in the race.
Burke, who put $5 million of her personal fortune into her bid, was boosted by national Democrats, including President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton. Walker was supported by an array of independent groups. The Republican Governors Association spent more than $8 million, and there were huge donations from conservative donors such as Sheldon Adelson to the state party.
The 47-year-old governor spent the final stretch of the race making the case that Wisconsin is on the upswing and promising more job growth if he were reelected.
Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive and state commerce secretary, countered that Walker fell far short of his pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. She cast herself as a pragmatic executive who would put the state back on track.
Walker’s success provides a compelling rationale for an expected 2016 White House bid: that he won two elections and fended off a 2012 recall effort in a state that twice voted for Obama.
“He can say to Republican activists around the country, ‘I won three close races in a swing state,’ ” said Mike Wagner, an assistant professor of journalism who studies political communication and elections at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Tim Phillips, president of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said Walker now has a national profile with major donors and party activists, making him a “formidable” presidential contender.
“Many donors already know him and respect what he’s done, so he will be able to instantly get in the door,” Phillips said.
How smoothly Walker would transition to the national stage is unclear. He is known as intensely hands-on in his campaigns and is surrounded by a largely Wisconsin-centric team of advisers.
The governor’s race spotlighted a deeply divided electorate, whose opinions of the two candidates barely budged despite intense campaigning from both sides.
“It was tight before people even knew who Burke was,” Wagner said. “Governor Walker is a very well-known commodity, the kind of well-known commodity that people either love or hate.”
The deep schism among voters was driven by Walker’s polarizing move in 2011 to curb unions’ bargaining power, which triggered the 2012 effort to recall him.
Labor unions drove much of that campaign. After failing to remove Walker from office, they poured resources into the state again this year.
“We have a score to settle with Scott Walker,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told The Washington Post in September.
But unlike Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who challenged Walker in 2010 and 2012, Burke did not make union issues central to her bid. Instead, she emphasized her “problem-solving” skills.
When asked by The Post this month to define her politics, the Democrat demurred, saying she declined to “put a label on it.”
In the end, Walker’s signature 2011 legislation, which prevented the automatic deduction of union dues from worker paychecks, barely surfaced in the campaign.
Because Walker prevailed in the recall, “that really took the issue off the table,” said Amber Wichowsky, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University. Rather, this year’s governor’s race was driven by “competing narratives about how well the recovery is going in Wisconsin,” she said.
Burke also sought to focus attention on state cuts to education and Walker’s opposition to raising the minimum wage, an issue the president raised during a rare campaign appearance last week.
“We need to strengthen the middle class for the 21st century,” Obama said, touting the need for equal pay for women.
The message was aimed at driving up Burke’s support among women, who were seen as key to her possible victory. A Marquette Law School poll released last week showed that the Democrat had a six-point lead among likely female voters, while the Republican governor enjoyed a 22-point lead among men who were likely to vote.