MILWAUKEE, June 5, 2012 -- Wisconsin voters rejected a year-long effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker and replace him with Democratic challenger Tom Barrett. ABC News projected Walker would win the race and hang onto his job one hour after polls closed.
The recall started last year as a state fight over Walker's efforts to curb public unions in his state. But with its fierce debate over how to resolve the country's budget woes and tens of millions in outside political money pouring into Wisconsin, the recall morphed into what many viewed as a preview of what to expect this fall when Obama battles GOP nominee Mitt Romney for the Oval Office.
"Voters really do want the leaders who make the tough decisions," Walker told a gathering of supporters in Waukesha, clearly viewing his victory as a validation of his stance toward public employee unions.
But he sought to strike a conciliatory tone, inviting Democrats to work with him. He halted supporters from booing Barrett and told them, "Tonight the election is over." Walker promised to invite Democrats and Republicans over for "brats" next week.
The victory is a boon to Walker and Republicans in this key battleground state that opted for President Obama by nearly 15 percent four years ago. It may also be interpreted as a validation of Walker's confrontational efforts to curb public employee unions. Walker's lieutenant governor, Rebecca Leefisch, withstood a twin recall effort.
"Gov. 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, D.C. Tonight's results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin," said Romney in a statement.
But voters in exit polls today said they favored Obama over Mitt Romney in November by an 11 point margin (53-42 percent).
"Wisconsin is a preview of what the November election is going to look like in many of these swing states," ABC News' political director Amy Walter said, "and that is millions and millions of dollars spent just to try to influence a dwindling percentage of swing voters and the two sides working very hard to make sure that their voters come and turn out."
While they said they preferred Obama, 52 percent of those who responded to exit polls approved of Walker's work on job creation, a key factor in the race Tuesday.
The Wisconsin recall election was only the third time in the nation's history that a sitting governor had faced a midterm recall, and that struck a sour note with voters. Six in 10 said recalls are only appropriate for reasons of official misconduct.
Walker had come under fire after he stripped collective bargaining rights for many public employees, infuriating labor groups in the state and around the country. Some voters, such as Keith Klawein, a union member and electrician for the Milwaukee schools, said Walker's actions had been devastating to them financially.
"For me it's a straight 10 percent cut in wages, which affects the way that I can support my family," he told ABC News. "My disposable income has basically been completely eliminated."
But other voters at a Milwaukee polling station on Lake Michigan said Walker deserved praise -- not scorn -- for his bold actions. Walker's decision to address Wisconsin's $3.6 billion budget deficit by slashing spending on government workers has helped improve the state's shortfall. Walker's office now projects a balance of $154 million by the end of the 2013 fiscal year. The state's unemployment rate dropped from 7.7 percent in January 2011 to 6.7 percent in April 2012.
"Change is what we need," said Paul Sohn, a salesman. "Taxes are going in the right direction. My property taxes in this neighborhood are out of control: 12 grand a year for a pretty limited property. He's changing things so we need that around here."
"It's tough," he added. "I mean, my income is down, my income is down 30 to 40 percent. I work in the private sector. It's tough for everybody. Everybody's dealing with it. You're working in the government, you're working in the private sector. Incomes are down. We're all dealing with it."
Sean McCormack was another voter who supported Walker and argued that the governor deserved the chance to see out his full first term in office.
"He hasn't been given a chance. I approve of all his measures he's put into place as far as fixing things. You know, his track record to this point has been great. I see nothing but good things for Wisconsin in the future," McCormack said. "I'm a little disappointed with, you know, with the blow back he's received ... from the other side of the political spectrum. I think he needs a longer chance."
"There were different ways to, you know, balance the budget. He inherited a difficult situation," McCormack said.
A November Preview
Despite the perceived ramifications for November, neither Obama nor Romney campaigned in Wisconsin for Walker and Barrett. Instead, high-profile Republican Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana stumped for Walker, while former President Clinton appeared at a rally for Barrett last Friday in Milwaukee. On Election Day, Obama sent a blast email to supporters praising the mayor.
"Tom has spent his career fighting for economic security and fairness for middle-class families," Obama wrote. "He's been a dedicated congressman and a great mayor, and he would make an outstanding governor for Wisconsin."
However, the White House repeatedly faced questions about its decision not to help Barrett in the recall battle. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the race could not be seen as a barometer of what is to come this fall, noting Walker's hefty fundraising advantage: Total spending topped $62 million, and Walker accounted for almost half of that.
"A race where one side is outspending the other by a ratio of at least eight to one probably won't tell us about a future race," Carney said.