By Cameron Joseph - 06/06/12 01:58 AM EDT
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) avoided being recalled Tuesday, a major blow to both Democrats and unions, as well as a sign the state may be in play in the presidential election.
Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D), who conceded the race shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time. Walker had 54 percent of the vote to Barrett's 46, with 93 percent of precincts reporting.
"I just got off the phone with Gov. Walker and congratulated him on his victory tonight," Barrett said. "We agreed that it is important for us to work together."
Walker spoke shortly afterward and said he had won because "voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions."
But the governor stressed that it was important to move beyond the divisiveness of the recall election.
"Tomorrow is the day after the election, and tomorrow we are no longer opponents," Walker said. "Tomorrow we are Wisconsinites who can work together to move forward."
The result is a huge letdown for organized labor, which made the race a top priority after Walker successfully pushed to end collective bargaining for state employees early last year.
Unions spent more than $10 million to try and defeat Walker, according to the independent Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracked spending on the race. They were also the driving force behind the special election, leading efforts to collect the nearly 1 million signatures gathered in support of Walker's recall. But the governor won by a wider margin than he did in 2010, a wave election for Republicans nationwide.
Total spending on the race exceeded $65 million, and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s Mike McCabe said once all the numbers are totaled that figure could exceed $75 million, doubling the maximum ever spent on any political campaign in the state.
That number was buttressed by a loophole in Wisconsin law that allowed Walker to raise unlimited donations from individuals for months, while Barrett had hard caps on his donations and could only begin fundraising two months ago when the recall became official. That allowed Walker to raise nearly $30 million and outspend Barrett by nearly 10-to-1. Walker and his allies more than doubled the amount Barrett and his backers spent on the race.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka put out a long statement defending the unions' work in Wisconsin.
In it, he thanked all unions members for their work on the recall, noting that "whether it was standing in the snow, sleeping in the Capitol, knocking on doors or simply casting a vote, we admire the heart and soul everyone poured into this effort."
He noted it was a "gargantuan challenge" to recall Walker and pointed out the unions were outspent in the race.
"We wanted a different outcome," Trumka said, "but Wisconsin forced the governor to answer for his efforts to divide the state and punish hard-working people. Their resolve has inspired a nation to follow their lead and stand up for the values of hard work, unity, and decency that we believe in."
The win increases Walker’s already-potent star power within the GOP. Some Republicans have floated his name as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, and Wisconsin Republicans had flocked to tie themselves to Walker ahead of the recall.
Walker’s win may lead to renewed tensions between President Obama and organized labor, who have had at times a contentious relationship. Obama stayed largely quiet on the recall and did not campaign in Wisconsin for Barrett despite being in neighboring Minnesota and Illinois in the last week, and his only comment on the race was a tweet sent Monday night.
Obama’s Wisconsin field operation did work with Barrett’s backers to turn out voters, and the Democratic Governors Association spent heavily on the race. The Democratic National Committee spent $1.4 million there and DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) stumped with Barrett last week, but a number of Walker foes criticized Obama’s lack of effort on the race.
The Obama campaign issued a statement saying the "outcome was not what we had hoped for" but that a "strong message" was sent.
Tripp Wellde, the Obama campaign's state director, said in the statement that exit polling from the recall election showed promise for the presidential vote.
"This vision was shared by the voters tonight, as exit polling showed President Obama beating Mitt Romney 52-43, a 9-point difference," Wellde said. "These data points clearly demonstrate a very steep pathway for Mitt Romney to recover in the state."
The same exit polls showed a dead heat between Walker and Barrett.
Gerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told The Hill last week that Obama and the national Democratic Party “could and should have done more” to help.
The GOP has grown increasingly bullish about its presidential election prospects in Wisconsin in recent weeks. The Republican National Committee sent out a background piece Tuesday afternoon detailing how President George W. Bush to came within 1 percentage point of winning the state in both of his elections and touting its 2010 successes, when the party won the governorship, control of both statehouses, a Senate seat and two House seats.
Mitt Romney congratulated Walker on his victory Tuesday night and said the results "will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin."
"Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back – and prevail – against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses. Tonight voters said ‘no’ to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and ‘yes’ to fiscal responsibility and a new direction. I look forward to working with Governor Walker to help build a better, brighter future for all Americans," he said in a statement.
Democrats have similarly shifted their views on Wisconsin. After having the state in the “solid Democratic” category on his Electoral College map for months, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina moved Wisconsin into the “toss-up” category for the first time on Monday. He made the move in a campaign video that sought to assure supporters they would prevail in the fall.
Obama’s campaign downplayed the change, and some of the same polls that showed Walker with an edge heading into the recall had Obama leading Romney.
“The last public polling had President Obama up 8 [points] in Wisconsin, but we have always anticipated a close race and don’t take anything for granted,” an Obama campaign official told The Hill Monday evening.
Because of Walker’s built-in financial advantages, some Democratic strategists had counseled early on against the recall. But Rep. Ron KindRon KindRyan: Pacific deal can't be fixed in time for lame-duck vote House Democrat expects support to grow for Pacific trade deal Hatch: TPP deal can get done in lame-duck session MORE (D-Wis.) told The Hill last week that the recall drive was moving forward whether or not Democratic insiders wanted it to.
“The recall was going to happen no matter what because of the very organic nature of it,” Kind said before adding he’d supported it from the start. “There's no way anyone could have stepped in and stopped the petitions from going out or the signatures from being collected. Clearly there was going to be a recall election regardless of whether any party folks had to say about it.”
— This story was posted at 9:58 p.m. and has been updated.