In a victory seen by Republicans as a mandate of a political agenda that included sharp cuts to public-sector union rights, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday became the first governor in US history to win a recall election.
Republican leaders in Wisconsin and throughout the US released statements late Tuesday heralding the recall victory, saying that it justifies Governor Walker's controversial methods to do away with the $3.6 billion deficit he inherited, and boosts their party's economic message in the general election.
“Wisconsin Democrats now head into November dispirited and in disarray, while Republicans remain strong and organized, with momentum on our side,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said 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.”
The Tuesday recall may have resulted in keeping Walker in office, but it removed one of four Republican state senators whose jobs were also on the line, which shifted Senate control to Democrats, 17-16. Former state Sen. John Lehman defeated incumbent Van Wanggaard, although tallies released Wednesday morning showed a tight race, which will likely trigger a recount.
If Mr. Lehman indeed wins the seat, the Democratic majority will hold until the November elections, when 16 of the 33 Senate seats are open.
While the recall election is rooted in policy disputes starting in February 2011 over the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, the debate widened to cover Walker’s entire governorship, which Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the governor's Democratic opponent, described as being driven by ideological tea party interests from outside the state. Critics said Walker was creating profound damage to Wisconsin through several policies, including his repeal of the state’s Equal Pay law, cuts to the state’s health-care program, his rejection of federal money for a high-speed rail line, and the sense that all of the above were depleting long-term job growth in a state that had already been hit hard by the recession.
Walker insisted that reforms were needed to mitigate Wisconsin’s economic crisis and that he had no choice, if raising taxes and issuing mass layoffs were off the table. He pointed to the state’s falling unemployment rate and balanced budget as evidence that he succeeded.
“You cannot do all those things unless you make long-term structural reforms,” he said in a debate with Mayor Barrett last week.
The recall election did not arrive without inflicting an emotional toll on voters. By the time Tuesday rolled around, Wisconsin voters had already voted in a recall election to replace nine state senators of both parties, with unprecedented spending reaching $44 million, a state record.
Voters headed back to the polls this year for the Democratic primary between Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. In total, spending in the 2011 and 2012 recall reached about $100 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group in Madison. The majority of the spending came from special-interest groups located outside the state.
For voters on both sides of the aisle who are already struggling through a troubled economy, the ballooning spending on the election became a prime example of misguided politics. For many, they voted out of disgust at the wasted money and frustration that they were forced to return to the polls for reasons that were starting to become foggy.
“There is no reason for this recall,” said Bob McHenry, a woodworker who stood outside a polling place in Racine, Wis., Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a waste of money we could be spending on other things to help our state, but we’re not.”
In his speech late Tuesday at the Waukesha County Exposition Center, Walker said that the results affirmed his “tough decisions,” and he stressed that he wanted to heal a state that had become polarized in the first 1-1/2 years of his term. “Tomorrow we are no longer opponents, we are one as Wisconsinites,” he said, adding that he planned to invite all the members of the state legislature out for “brats and some burgers.”
He also gave the sense he may have been too brash, after he was first elected in 2010, to enact his policies quickly and with little consideration of how it would inflame the opposition.
"I learned much over the last year and a half. Early in 2011, I rushed to fix things without talking about it,” he said. “I believe we can move on.”