MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall challenge Tuesday, winning both the right to finish his term and a voter endorsement of his strategy to curb state spending, which included the explosive measure that eliminated union rights for most public workers.
With his defeat of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the union leaders who rallied for months against Walker’s agenda, the rising Republican star became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt.
“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,” Walker said in his victory speech in Waukesha.
The governor said he was committed to working with his opponents, beginning with a friendly get-together with lawmakers of both parties over brats, burgers and “maybe a little bit of good Wisconsin beer.”
With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, Walker had nearly 54 percent of the vote, compared with 45 percent for Barrett, according to unofficial returns tabulated by the Associated Press.
As he conceded his loss, Barrett said the state had been left “deeply divided” by the recall battle.
“It is up to all of us, their side and our side, to listen. To listen to each other,” Barrett said.
Walker was only the third governor to face a recall vote. California Gov. Gray Davis lost in 2003.
Democrats and organized labor spent millions to oust Walker but found themselves hopelessly outspent by Republicans from across the country who donated record-setting sums to Walker. Republicans hope the victory carries over into November and that their get-out-the-vote effort can help Mitt Romney become the first GOP nominee to carry the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Romney issued a statement saying Walker’s victory “will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.”
Walker “has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back – and prevail – against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses,” Romney said. “Tonight voters said no to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday and yes to fiscal responsibility and a new direction.”
Walker entered the national spotlight last year when he unveiled plans to plug a $3.6 billion budget shortfall in part by taking away the union rights of most public workers and requiring them to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits. It was one of his first moves in office.
Democrats and labor leaders saw it as a political tactic designed to gut the power of his political opposition. State Senate Democrats left Wisconsin for three weeks in a sort of filibuster, as tens of thousands of teachers, state workers and others rallied at the Capitol in protest. Republicans, who control the state Legislature, approved his plans.
Walker went on to sign into law several other measures that fueled the recall challenge, including repealing a law giving discrimination victims more ways to sue for damages, making deep cuts to public schools and higher education, and requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Turnout was on pace to meet predictions of 65 percent of eligible voters – a figure more typically seen in a presidential race.
More than $66 million was spent on the race as of May 21, making it easily the most expensive in Wisconsin history. That was spent on an all-out barrage of television ads, direct mail, automated calls and other advertising.
Walker raised millions from conservative donors and built his own political fame.
Unions got behind the recall drive, which started with the collection of more than 900,000 signatures over two months to force the vote. Barrett defeated the union-favored candidate in the Democratic primary in May.
Also Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and at least three Republicans in state Senate races also survived recalls. Republicans were leading in the other Senate race.