Gov. Scott Walker beat back a fierce recall effort Tuesday, ending a bitter campaign and gaining the upper hand in an ideological struggle over budget slashing and union power in Wisconsin.
Democratic challenger Tom Barrett conceded the race shortly after 10 p.m., while Walker supporters waited for the governor to speak at his election night party in suburban Waukesha. But his campaign declared victory in a statement sent to reporters. “It is time to put our differences aside and figure out ways that we can move Wisconsin forward,” Walker said in his statement.
Walker’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, who appeared to have beaten back a recall effort against her as well, made a brief statement to the cheering crowd. “Years from now they will say the campaign to save America began tonight in Wisconsin,” she said.
Ballot counting was slow after a day in which voters in this highly polarized state swarmed the polls.
CNN reported that exit polls showed a dead heat, with Walker and Barrett each the choice of 50 percent of those surveyed. Walker jumped to a strong lead in early vote tabulation, but the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison were still reporting results and the gap was expected to tighten.
With about three-quarters of the vote counted, Walker was leading by more than 10 percentage points and held leads in all but a few counties.
In Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb that is probably the state’s most heavily Republican area, of the state, Walker was grabbing nearly 3 out of every four votes. On the flip side, Barrett was winning handily in heavily Democratic Dane County, home of state capital Madison, but his margin over Walker was not as large.
There were long lines at many polling places as they closed at 8 p.m., with many first-time voters waiting to sign up in a state that allows same-day registration and voting. Election officials said those in line by closing time would be allowed to cast ballots, and 90 minutes later many were still queued up as networks began calling the race for Walker.
Some Milwaukee precincts nearly ran out of ballots and had to send out for refills.
The Wisconsin contest, just the third time in U.S. history that a state has voted whether to recall its governor, piqued interest across the nation--in great measure because it highlighted the sharp ideological divide likely to dominate the presidential election in November.
Front and center were Walker’s vision of small, austere government and epic clashes with public employee unions, at the center of a recall petition drive that netted more than 900,000 signatures.
The recall also gave full flower to the impact of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which gave a green light to an unprecedented wave of political fundraising, much of it anonymous and generally tilted in favor of conservative candidates.
Walker outraised Barrett by at least 8 to 1, and between the candidates and outside interest groups spending on the race has been clocked at $63 million and counting.
Pundits and partisans across the nation also were looking to the results for clues about the future of the tea party movement, organized labor and the outcome of the battle between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Wisconsin is considered a swing state in the fall.
But while the early exit polls reported by CNN indicated the governor’s race to be squeaky tight, they showed Obama favored by a slight majority of those surveyed.
In Washington, presidential spokesman Jay Carney downplayed the notion that the Wisconsin results would translate easily into the race for the White House. “A race where one side is outspending the other by a ratio of at least 8 to 1 probably won’t tell us much about a future race,” Carney said.
Romney was swift to congratulate Walker after networks projected him as the winner. “Tonight’s results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin,” the Republican presidential nominee said in a statement. “Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back – and prevail – against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses.”
Though Walker held a narrow lead in most late polls, both Republicans and Democrats predicted that actual vote tally would be close and would hinge on the ability of each side to rev up grassroots efforts to get their voters to the polls. And rev up they did.
“I think we’re having presidential (election) turnout,” said Kenosha County Clerk Mary Schuch-Krebs as she watched voters flood to polling places in her southeastern county along the Illinois border.
Voting was reported to be especially heavy in Milwaukee and Dane County. At the same time, Republican rich suburbs near Milwaukee also experienced a voter deluge.
Tuesday’s battle was effectively a redo of the 2010 race for governor between Walker and Barrett, which Walker won by 5 percentage points.
The two weren’t alone on the recall ballot. Walker’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, a former Milwaukee television news reporter and anchor, faced a challenge from Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, head of the state firefighters union.
Four Republican state senators also were defending their seats, and just one GOP loss in those contests would transfer control of the state senate to Democrats. In theory that could hold the potential to thwart Walker, but the legislature is out of session and not scheduled to meet until after the November elections, when Republicans would have another shot at regaining power.
The Republicans appeared to be holding their seats based on early returns.
The recall was an outgrowth of political turmoil that erupted within weeks of Walker talking office as he teamed up with a Republican-controlled legislature to close a budget deficit via steep cuts in spending, including money for schools. At the same time, the governor and legislature extended tax breaks for businesses.
Even more significant were moves to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, something Walker said was vital to give public officials flexibility to cut costs and save money for taxpayers.
The unions viewed that as an attempt to destroy them as punishment for throwing political support to Democrats.
In Kenosha,veteran poll workers said they had seen many first-time voters come in to register before casting ballots, including a man in his 80s.
In Milwaukee, a Barrett supporter was nervous but optimistic.
“I’m very excited. I’m praying and hoping, praying and hoping,” said Willy Franklin, as he stuck an “I voted” sticker on his jacket.
Roberta Komor, of the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, said she voted for Barrett when he ran in 2010, but this time she voted for Walker.
The law firm secretary said that in today’s hard times, unions “need to learn about shared sacrifice” as workers in the private sector have seen their benefits or wages cut.
Many voters seemed relieved the election had finally come, and voiced disgust with the recall process. “There are too many recall elections that have been going on in the state and it needs to be stopped,” said Carolyn Gral, a Walker supporter and homemaker who is looking for a job.
At Ron’s Barber Shop in Walker’s childhood hometown of Delavan, Ron Tesch said he wouldn’t hazard a guess as to who will would win the recall race. Walker or his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Tesch’s profession as a barber makes him an informal pollster of sorts, but no clear winner has emerged from the data comments overheard collected in his shop.
“I wouldn’t want to bet on it,” he said.
Like many others in this bitterly divided state, Tesch declined to say for whom whohe voted. for. He did recall letting Walker ride in the back of his convertible during a parade when Walker was in high school.
Dave Abell, of Delavan, also declined to discuss his vote, but he said the recall, with its implications for unions, state employees and small-business owners, among others, has made it hazardous to discuss politics.
“You don’t want to talk about it with your friends because you won’t have friends anymore,” he said.