MADISON, Wis. - Governor 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.
The rising Republican star became the first governor in US history to survive a recall attempt with his defeat of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the union leaders who rallied for months against his agenda.
In an interview, Walker said it was time “to put our differences aside and find ways to work together to move Wisconsin forward.’’
The governor said he planned to invite lawmakers to meet as soon as next week over burgers and brats to discuss ways to bridge the political divide.
With nearly 80 percent of precincts reporting, Walker had 55 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for Barrett, according to early returns.
In his concession remarks, 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.
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.’’
The recall was a rematch of the 2010 governor’s race. Throughout the campaign, Walker maintained that his policies set the state on the right economic track. Defeat, he said, would keep other politicians from undertaking such bold moves in the future.
“We’re headed in the right direction,’’ Walker said many times. “We’re turning things around. We’re moving Wisconsin forward.’’
Barrett repeatedly accused Walker of neglecting the needs of the state in the interests of furthering his own political career by making Wisconsin “the Tea Party capital of the country.’’
Walker ascended into the national spotlight last year when he surprised the state and 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.
However, Walker said that his plan would help him control the state budget and that his opponents could not stop the majority Republicans from approving his plans.
Walker went on to sign into law several other measures that fueled calls for a recall, including repealing a law that gave 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 strong across the state with few problems reported as some voters waited in line to cast their ballots.
Jeff Naunheim, a warranty analyst from St. Francis who voted for Walker first thing Tuesday, said the recall was a waste of money.
“I think the Wisconsin voters voted in 2010 to vote Walker in,’’ he said. “I don’t think he did anything illegal.’’
Barrett supporter Lisa Switzer of Sun Prairie said Walker went too far.
“Even if it doesn’t turn out the way we want it to, it proves a point,’’ said Switzer. “People in Wisconsin aren’t just going to stand by and let a governor take over the state and cut social services.’’
More than $66 million was spent on the race as of May 21, making it easily the most expensive in Wisconsin history.
Walker used the recall to raise millions from conservative donors and bolster his own political fame in the face of the fight. National GOP groups, including Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governors Association, poured money into the contest.
Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican state senators also faced recall elections Tuesday, and a fourth open Senate seat was also to be filled. Democrats hoped to win at least one of the Senate seats, which would give them a majority at least through the end of the year.