Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a national symbol of conservative heroism – and labor union and liberal disdain – Tuesday overcame a spirited Democratic effort to recall him from office.
Milwaukee Mayor Thomas Barrett was vying to make Walker only the third governor ever to be ousted by voters before the end of his term.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Walker has 53 percent, Barrett 46.
The race has drawn national attention for weeks and will be scrutinized in the days ahead for clues about 2012 political trends. Many experts, though, warned against reading too much into the result – the issues and personalities were often too unique to Wisconsin.
That didn't stop the two parties from trying to send national messages. Democrats had seen the recall as a chance to vividly show the country how voters reject the kind of rigid conservative ideology Walker has promoted. He’s stabilized state finances with some tough measures, including curbing state government workers’ bargaining rights.
Walker won the governorship in 2010, beating Barrett by 5 percentage points. Walker quickly took on the public employees, and the ugly war that erupted wound up sparking the effort to recall the governor.
National Democratic figures, such as former President Bill Clinton, have campaigned on Barrett’s behalf. President Barack Obama, who has largely stayed out of the fray, tweeted a message of support this week.
Walker had the aid of his own national army. Leading conservatives – and their generous contributions – have poured into the state.
Candidates and independent groups have spent more than $63.5 million on the race since November, the Center for Public Integrity reported Tuesday. That easily surpassed the $37.4 million spent on the 2010 gubernatorial battle. Since late 2011, Walker has outraised Barrett by better than 7-to-1, the center found. About one-fourth of Barrett’s money and nearly two-thirds of Walker’s funds came from out of state.
Conservatives looked for a Walker win as a high-profile victory in their crusade to pare government. Other Republican governors, as well as Republican members of Congress, have been pushing a similar, no-compromise agenda of tough spending cuts.
“A win here would resonate with conservatives across the country, who see Walker as a symbol of the changes they want,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School poll.
Some Republicans thought a solid Walker showing also would send a gentler message. Wisconsin unemployment is down from its 2009 peak, and to many voters, the horrors predicted by Walker’s opponents have not materialized.
“People have had a year to digest what the screaming was about," said Mark Graul, a veteran Republican state strategist. “I think a lot are saying, ‘I like the result.’”
Democrats started the race at a disadvantage. Barrett had to survive a May 8 primary against former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk , the choice of labor, teachers and environmental groups. Walker has maintained a lead in most polls, and Democratic strategists have been concerned whether party loyalists would show up Tuesday.
The White House on Tuesday sought to lower expectations ahead of the vote, with spokesman Jay Carney saying that "a race where one side is outspending the other by a ratio of at least eight to one probably won’t tell us much about a future race."
Carney said Obama was "aware" of the recall but has "some other responsibilities, so I know that he’s not following it minute by minute."
In Wisconsin, Barrett backers insist that as the race has heated up, momentum has grown. “The energy level for us is palpable. People are seeing this as a clear choice,” said Erik Kirkstein, political director of United Wisconsin, which is urging people to back Barrett. Helping the cause has been a late push by prominent Democrats, notably former President Clinton, who campaigned with Barrett last week.
A Barrett victory, Democrats say, would be a signal that voters think the GOP has gone too far in trying to limit the scope and role of government.
“If labor unions and progressives can push back and win, it’ll give pause to the right-wing agenda,” said Sachin Chheda, Milwaukee County Democratic chairman.
A win also would be regarded as evidence that the party’s ground game, a huge boost to Obama in his 2008 race, remains potent. That could be crucial in Wisconsin, considered one of the swing states in the 2012 presidential race.
“If Democrats make this race competitive, it could show that the ground organization Obama had there last time is still in semi-operational mode,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. “This could be seen as a dry run.”
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.