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.
He took office facing a $3 billion budget shortfall left by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Since then, Walker has claimed some successes: His office projects that the state will soon show a budget surplus, after climbing out of the red.
But he has not lived up to some promises, including that his policies would create 250,000 jobs over four years. The Associated Press reported that Walker is far off that pace.
Since 2010, the GOP’s push to control government spending has lifted some of its backers to national success. Both New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) have championed such efforts and have been mentioned as potential running mates for Romney.
But the same strategy has backfired at times. In Ohio last fall, voters rejected a proposal by Gov. John Kasich (R) to curb union bargaining rights. And in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R), who has tried similar ideas, has seen his popularity slip.
In Wisconsin, Walker’s policies energized the left — and in response, conservatives mobilized to defend him. Walker faced days of sit-in protests in the state Capitol, then a drive to recall him, as well as Kleefisch and six GOP state senators. Last year, four of those senators survived a recall election, leaving the GOP with a one-vote majority in that chamber.
Two factors conspired to put Wisconsin’s recall effort at the center of American politics: its timing and its location.
The location matters because Wisconsin is a traditional wellspring of left-wing ideas and liberal pols that has recently produced young, ambitious Republicans such as Walker and Ryan. This fall, both parties will claim it as their heartland.
The timing matters because the recall effort comes at the start of the 2012 general-election campaign, when both parties are working out their messages — Republicans seeking a way to sell cuts in budgets and benefits, and Democrats trying to reject the GOP’s austerity without appearing reckless.
It also provides a look ahead at the first presidential race defined by unlimited donations from super PACs.
“After 15 months of this stuff, we can finally put it to bed. And at least there’s a positive movement forward and we can create jobs in the state,” said Donald Thies of Slinger, Wis., who was celebrating Walker’s victory at the candidate’s official party on Tuesday night. Thinking ahead, Thies said, “I think it’ll be close in the fall if the Republican Party does it right.”
Weiner reported from Green Bay and Waukesha, Wis.