In the final battle of a war that began more than a year ago and pitted fiscal conservatives against big labor, Wisconsin voters on Tuesday night decided against recalling Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Despite exit polls showing a tight race, Walker, with nearly all precincts reporting, led his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett 53 percent to 46 percent in a recall effort launched by Democrats in response to Walker's cost-cutting measures. His changes to laws governing collective bargaining for public employees caused the labor movement to erupt in demonstrations last year, ultimately leading to Tuesday's failed ouster.
"First of all I want to thank God for His abundant grace," Walker said to a crowd of supporters at his victory speech Tuesday night. Walker, who used faith, family, and freedom as a campaign slogan, then recounted how many people he had met in Wisconsin who said they were praying for him. "I can't tell you what that means to me."
Wisconsin's recall effort was only the third time in U.S. history when voters went to the polls to decide whether to oust a sitting governor, and Walker is the only one of the three to survive. His win is a substantial victory for fiscal conservatives and the Tea Party movement, which campaigned heavily in the state. Other conservative state governors may be embolden by Wisconsin's support of Walker to push their own efforts at fiscal reform.
"Tonight, Wisconsin voters rewarded political courage," Republican Governors Association Chairman Bob McDonnell said in a statement. "Upon taking office, Gov. Walker fearlessly took on the staunch defenders of the status quo and tackled unsustainable entitlements and long-term fiscal liabilities. His actions have made Wisconsin stronger."
Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch also survived a recall effort, as did at least three Republicans in state Senate races. In a fourth senate race, the Democrat held the lead. Should the Democrat prevail in that race, the balance of power in the state Senate would go to the Democrats for at least the remainder of this year.
Tuesday's results are a big blow to the labor movement's efforts to protect collective bargaining rights for public workers. The labor-backed We Are Wisconsin headed a furious effort, calling upon 50,000 volunteers and spending nearly $3 million to knock on 1.4 million doors and make 1.5 million phone calls in the weeks before the election.
The race saw campaigns and outside groups spend more than $63 million, making it Wisconsin's most-expensive election ever. While Walker raised more than $30 million for the recall, Barrett took in only $4 million. The Republican Governors Association contributed more than $9 million compared with the $3.4 million spent in the recall campaign by the Democratic Governors Association.
Tuesday's results likely will have repercussions beyond Wisconsin as the nation heads toward this fall's presidential election. Walker gives the GOP a boost in a state that Barack Obama won by 14 percentage points in 2008. But Obama's own campaign recently listed Wisconsin as a toss-up state.
"I congratulate the people of my home state in defeating the selfish special interests that wanted to take Wisconsin back to the days of Democrats' failed policies," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz last month called the Wisconsin recall a "dry run" for the presidential election. But Obama avoided the state, offering a late posting on Twitter of support and an email to his list of supporters the day before the polls opened.
"It is hard to imagine how he can now come back to Wisconsin and credibly ask for his party's support in November," said Priebus. "The president abandoned his base in this recall, so he shouldn't be surprised if they return the favor in November."
Looking to seize the moment, Mitt Romney quickly offered his public congratulations to Walker, saying the governor "demonstrated over the past year what sound fiscal policies can do to turn an economy around, and I believe that in November, voters across the country will demonstrate that they want the same in Washington, D.C."
But Walker, in his victory speech, seemed less focused on the national stage and more concerned with mending fences in Wisconsin.
"Tomorrow the election is over. It is time to move Wisconsin forward," he said. "I believe, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, now is the time to come together."