MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Wisconsin Democrats and union forces lost their bid to unseat incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker in the state’s special recall election Tuesday, signaling an end to the political turmoil that has enveloped the Badger State for more than a year.
Walker survived the third recall of a governor in U.S. history, defeating Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 53 percent to 46 percent. The results are almost identical to when Walker first defeated Barrett in Wisconsin’s 2010’s gubernatorial election.
Exit polling projected it would be a nail-biter of a race, but less than an hour after polls closed at 8 p.m. CST, NBC called it for Walker.
The Barrett campaign clung to fading hopes for more than an hour, sending surrogates to speak to the crowd at its victory party at a downtown Milwaukee Hilton.
"We are not going to let the media corporations decide this election," said Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “There are still people voting in Milwaukee.”
At 10:15 p.m., Barrett conceded the race to cries of outrage and shock from the audience. As he walked through the crowd, one woman slapped him.
Tuesday’s results are also a slap in the face of organized labor, which poured millions of dollars into the recall effort and bused in volunteers from across the country to canvass voters.
“There’s no question if there’s a loss there will be a momentary loss of energy,” Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, told Politico. “I don’t think there’s any substitute for winning, and I think that there’s every right for the winners to feel vindicated and to have bragging rights,”
The victory is vindication for Walker, whose collective bargaining and pension reforms in Wisconsin made him public enemy number one of unions. In his victory speech, Walker called for an end to the bitter politics that have divided the state.
"It is time to move the state forward,” Walker said. “Tomorrow we are no longer opponents. Tomorrow we are one as Wisconsinites."
Walker’s victory drew congratulations from national Republican figures across the country.
“Tonight voters said ‘no’ to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday and ‘yes’ to fiscal responsibility and a new direction,” said Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as the race was called for Walker.
The incumbent governor benefited from an enthusiasm and money gap, outraising Barrett around seven to one. And after a year and a half of debate, there were few undecided voters left, so Democrats were banking on huge voter turnout to win.
State elections officials predicted voter turnout of 60 to 65 percent, above 2010 levels but below presidential levels of 2008. Democrats predicted victory if they could push turnout to 2008 levels. But in the end, election officials estimate 58 percent of eligible voters hit the polls.
Democrats underperformed in areas where they needed to over-perform. Walker carried red counties by massive margins, while still drawing enough votes from liberal bastions such as Milwaukee and Madison to avoid anything resembling a close race.
Walker carried 54 percent of independent voters. Perhaps more surprisingly, one-third of union households in Wisconsin voted for Walker.
Barrett could never settle on a solid line of attack against his Republican opponent, much less articulate his own plans for how he would balance the state budget or create jobs, giving voters little reason to support him over the incumbent.
Walker’s collective bargaining reforms, the impetus for the recall election, failed to catch on as a central issue in the election, and Democrats pivoted to several other lines of attack, from Walker’s jobs record to an ongoing investigation into a former Walker staff member to Walker’s so-called “war on women.”
In the final days before the election, Democrats attacked Walker for raising out-of-state money.
“[Walker] became the rock star of the far right, raising millions of dollars from out of state,” Barrett said at a union rally in Kenosha on Monday. ”People of Wisconsin know it’s wrong to take that money from out of state.”
“It may have helped him for a while, but in the end it’s going to be his undoing, that he was ruthless in acquiring out-of-state checks,” former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D., Wis.) told reporters at the Barrett rally.
Wisconsin voters found such arguments unpersuasive.
Voters seemed more impressed by the economic numbers Walker cited: a $154 million budget surplus when the state faced a $3.6 billion deficit before he took office; 30,000 new jobs; and a 6.7 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in almost four years.
State Republicans rallied around the besieged governor, whose battles with organized labor have made him a national conservative hero, while independents warmed to his reforms as the state’s economy improved.
At a Walker speech Monday night, Sara, who declined to give her last name, said the governor had fired up the Republican base in a way few others have.
“I think Scott Walker opened the eyes of a lot of people, and now that they’re open, they’ll never be closed again,” she said.
Walker has been at the center of a political dogfight with national implications for almost a year and a half after he rolled back collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions and required them to pay more into their pension plans.
Those reforms closed the state’s $3.6 billion budget gap, but they also put a target on Walker’s back. Democrats and unions gathered nearly a million signatures to force Tuesday’s recall.
That election became the most expensive in Wisconsin history, with Republicans, Democrats, and outside groups spending more than $60 million.
Both parties brought in national figures to stump for their respective candidates. Former president Bill Clinton appeared at a Barrett rally on Friday, urging voters to reject Walker’s “divide and conquer” politics. Long-time civil rights leader and Democrat Jesse Jackson also spoke at two events.
On the Republican side, figures such as Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey travelled to the Badger State to support Walker.
One notably absent figure was President Barack Obama, who tweeted support for Barrett but declined to come to Wisconsin, despite being in neighboring Minnesota just days before the recall election.
At Barrett headquarters Tuesday night, Democrats were careful to avoid pointing fingers at Obama.
"I'm very pleased with the effort the national party put in here," Tate told reporters after Barrett conceded. "I know the president sent out an email and tweeted, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, besides coming out here, was making get-out-the-vote phone calls for us."
But it was impossible not to hear dispirited volunteers milling around the ballroom—and the hotel bar—who blamed the president for not doing more.
"I worked hard for Obama," a Barrett volunteer told Buzzfeed. “I was furious that he didn’t come to Milwaukee. And I said, I wasn’t going to work for him anymore.”
To the west in Waukesha County, the Walker victory party continued far into the night in a county expo center filled to capacity. And Walker wasn’t the only one celebrating a victory. Four out of five Republicans facing recall kept their seats.
“Now this is what democracy looks like,” Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch said after trouncing her Democrat opponent, Mahlon Mitchell.