Republicans have moved swiftly to try to turn their triumph in Wisconsin’s recall election into a springboard for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Party leaders hailed Scott Walker’s crushing blow to both organised labour and Democrats in Tuesday’s vote as a victory whose momentum could take them to the White House.
The state governor survived a union-sponsored recall vote with an increased majority after mobilising independents and swing voters behind his record of cutting spending and taxes and balancing the budget.
Even before final results were announced a statement from Romney, who was campaigning in Texas, sought to capitalise on the victory by acclaiming it a portent of what was to come.
“Tonight’s 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.”
With nearly all votes counted Walker had nearly 53% versus 46% for his Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, widening the lead from when the two faced off in 2010′s gubernatorial election. Walker’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, also survived her recall election.
It spelled despair for union and grassroots activists who had waged an 18-month campaign, verging on insurrection, to oust the governor and several allies over restrictions on collective bargaining and cutbacks of pension and health benefits of public sector workers.
Addressing jubilant supporters at Waukesha’s county exposition centre, Walker said his renewed mandate would resonate far and wide.
“Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell peopleall across the globe that voters really do want leaders that stand upand make the tough decisions.”
He sounded a conciliatory note in promising to soon meet Democrat and Republican state leaders over burgers and beer. When the crowd booedBarrett’s name he cut them off. “Tomorrow is the day after the election, and tomorrow we are no longer opponents,” he said. “We are one as Wisconsinites.”
Whether he can heal a state scarred by deep acrimony remained an openquestion, since other Republicans proclaimed his success as a template to bash Democrats elsewhere.
“Here is one simple thing the Romney campaign can do: associate Mitt Romney with Governor Walker’s success – and the successes of other governors – in making the case for a national agenda of conservativereform of a bloated and bankrupt welfare state,” William Kristol, a party guru, urged in the Weekly Standard.
“A Walker victory in Wisconsin … could provide a defining moment for the Romney campaign – and for the forces of responsible Republican reform against reactionary Democratic opposition.”
In the Wisconsin town of Appleby local Republicans, between whoops of delight as Fox news announced more election results, said wind was blowing their way. “It gives one more confidence about everything,” said Dave Murphy, who hopes to win the state’s 56th assembly district.
One silver lining for President Barack Obama was that exit polls said almost a fifth of those who voted for Walker backed the president, suggesting Wisconsin, a swing state which he won in 2008, would remain loyal come November. The last Republican presidential candidate to win it was Ronald Reagan in 1984.
White House strategists anticipated Tuesday’s outcome by distancing Obama from Wisconsin’s toxic battle. He endorsed Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, but did not campaign for him. The decision dismayed local Democrats but was calculated to not antagonise independent voters who liked Walker.
Barrett called the incumbent to concede around 10pm local time. He told supporters at the Hilton hotel in downtown Milwaukee: “Never ever stop doing what you think is right. That’s what makes this such a great country. Please, please, please remain engaged, remain involved, because we will continue to fight for justice and fairness in this city and state.”
Walker became the first governor to survive a recall election. Two others who faced the same test – in 1921 and 2003 – lost.
His supporters said a “silent majority” of voters had grown sick of almost 500 days of union-led occupations, protests and electioneering.
The recall vote was triggered after Democrats collected 1m signatures.
Democrats blamed their defeat largely on a seven-to-one spending advantage – courtesy mainly of out-of-state donors – which let Walker blitz Wisconsin’s airwaves and telephone lines. “It’s bombarding people,” lamented Marlene Dion, 75, a retired nurse who campaigned for Barrett. “A message sinks in if you say it often enough.”