MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, handily defeated an effort by labor unions and Democratic activists to end his tenure early, surviving a recall contest that capped more than a year of political turmoil and deep division in the state.
With nearly all of the vote counted, Walker had 53% to 46% for his Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee.
The recall race was anxiously watched by strategists in both parties as a possible harbinger of the presidential election, and the outcome was a major defeat for Democrats and their labor union allies. The heavy turnout of conservatives and voters in Republican strongholds suggested that at least here, the 2012 electorate continues to look much like the one that delivered power to the GOP in 2010.
Unions led the recall effort after Walker pushed a bill through the state Legislature last year that sharply limited collective bargaining rights for teachers and most other government workers. Union supporters staged massive demonstrations in Madison, the capital, last spring. Early this year, they turned in more than 900,000 signatures on recall petitions, setting up only the third recall election of a governor in U.S. history.
But Walker fought back, arguing that he had made the "tough choices" needed to balance the state's budget and free school districts from excessive costs. Those arguments found a receptive audience among many Wisconsin residents who felt that in hard economic times, public employees were asking for too much. Walker repeated that argument in a victory speech Tuesday night, saying that with their votes, Wisconsin residents had told "people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions."
One such voter, Roberta Komor, a secretary at a law firm who lives in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, said she had voted for Barrett two years ago, but this time went for Walker. Unions "need to learn about shared sacrifice" as workers in the private sector see their benefits and wages cut, she said.
While he was not on the ballot, the results — particularly the size of Walker's victory — had to be considered a sign of trouble for President Obama in a state he badly needs to carry in November. In the days leading up to Tuesday's election, Walker strategists had boasted they were using the recall to build a voter-turnout operation that would boost the fortunes of Republicans across Wisconsin. That turnout machine will now go to work for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
Romney was swift to congratulate Walker. "Tonight's results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin," he said in a statement. "Gov. Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back — and prevail — against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses."
Walker, however, had a couple of major advantages that Romney may lack this fall. In particular, the governor used his status as a hero to conservatives nationwide to raise about $30 million. A feature of the state's recall law allowed him to take in unlimited contributions from supporters, many of them from out of state.
Outside groups on both sides poured money into the race, making the recall by far the most expensive election in Wisconsin history. With more than $60 million spent overall — the full total will not be known for several weeks — Walker and groups supporting him had close to a 3-to-1 financial advantage over groups supporting Barrett.
Another advantage for Walker appeared to be distaste for recalls on the part of some voters. An exit poll conducted for news organizations showed that about 6 in 10 of Tuesday's voters felt recalls should be used only in cases of official misconduct.
In a concession to his critics, Walker said in his speech that last year he had "rushed in" because of the urgency of the state's problems and had taken action without talking with people. "Looking ahead," he said, "it's important to do both."
The exit poll also showed that a majority of voters would have voted for Obama had the election been held Tuesday.
The passions generated by the recall campaign could be seen in long lines at many polling places even as the closing time hit at 8 p.m. Many first-time voters were 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 more.
"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 state line.
Tuesday's battle was effectively a redo of the 2010 race for governor between Walker and Barrett. Walker won that race by 5 percentage points. This time around, with a larger turnout overall, he improved his vote total in many swing counties while building on his strength in Republican strongholds such as Waukesha County, just west of Milwaukee, where he was winning over 70% of the vote.
Walker's lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, a former Milwaukee television news reporter and anchor, also faced a recall challenge — from Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, head of the state firefighters union. She was winning by a margin similar to Walker's.
Four Republican state senators also were defending their seats. 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 will have another shot at regaining power.
The Republicans appeared to be holding their seats, based on partial returns.
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.
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.
Secter reported from Milwaukee and Lauter from Washington. Chicago Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel in Kenosha, Wis., contributed to this report.