Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker wakes up Wednesday knowing he’ll get to finish his term, after voters by a wide margin sided with him in a recall election that attracted national attention and divided much of the state -- from opposing political parties to neighbors and even family members.
However, several key questions remain unanswered, including whether Wisconsin now can move past the recent acrimony and what impact the recall results will have on the presidential election just five months away.
“Now is the time for us to come together,” Walker told supporters after claiming victory. “Tomorrow we are all Wisconsinites.”
Walker’s Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, made a similar plea in his concession speech late Tuesday night, urging residents to put aside their differences.
“Now we must look to the future,” said Barrett, who also lost to Walker in 2010.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Walker had 53 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Barrett. The margin of victory was wider than many expected and slightly better than Walker's 5.8 percentage-point victory over Barrett in the 2010 race. Some 2.5 million voters cast their ballots.
Walker’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and at least three Republicans in state Senate races survived recalls. Unofficial results showed the Democrat ahead in the other Senate race, the outcome of which will determine which party controls the Senate at least through the end of the year.
The recall effort began when the first-term governor and Republicans in the state legislature rolled back what they considered excesses in the collective bargaining agreements of public-employee unions -- an effort to cut Wisconsin’s estimated $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
Wisconsin went for President Obama in 2008, but the recall results give Republicans hope that their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, can win there in November.
“Governor Walker has demonstrated over the past year what sound fiscal policies can do to turn an economy around, and I believe that in November voters across the country will demonstrate that they want the same in Washington,” Romney said.
Republicans see Walker’s win as evidence voters across the country want their elected officials to keep government living within its means. They said this paves the way for Romney to become the first Republican candidate to carry Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The outcome Tuesday is also a blow to the labor movement, which poured considerable resources into the failed effort to oust Walker.
Of the three recall elections of governors in U.S. history, only Walker has survived.
The recall effort started about a year and a half ago, after the legislature passed Walker’s proposal to curb public employee union power, while also requiring most public state workers to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits.
Democrats and unions argued the governor had gone too far, and they helped organize massive statehouse protests and gather 900,000 signatures for the recall vote.
Roughly $63 million was spent on the race, with much of Walker’s support coming from outside of the state.
The Republican Governors Association spent $1.5 million in a last-minute, get-out-the-vote effort. However, most voters seemed to have decided long before Election Day.
Democratic groups -- including those funded by unions, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee -- poured in about $14 million, based on a tally from the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Barrett's $4.2 million in donations were mostly from inside Wisconsin.
The race attracted some big names on both sides. Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared on behalf of Walker, while former President Bill Clinton came out for Barrett in the race's final days.
Though Romney visited the state with Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan earlier this year, President Obama did not travel to Wisconsin to campaign for Barrett, though he tweeted his support Monday night.
Since taking office, Walker has reduced the state budget and seen a drop in the state's unemployment rate.
Walker, the 44-year-old son of a minister, remained unflappable throughout the campaign, as he was during the massive protests that raged at the Statehouse for weeks as lawmakers debated his proposal.
Along the way, he has become the most successful fundraiser in Wisconsin politics, collecting at least $31 million from around the country since taking office.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.