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WAUKESHA, WIS. - Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became the first U.S. governor to survive a recall election, defeating Democrat Tom Barrett on Tuesday night in a historic conclusion to 17 months of political turmoil.
Walker was leading Barrett in all but nine of the state's counties as results came in for only the third gubernatorial recall in the nation's history. Walker's showing was strong enough that every major television network declared him the winner about an hour after polls closed. Later in the night, after elections officials had tallied more than 90 percent of the votes, Walker had an eight-point lead.
Barrett called Walker to concede shortly after 10 p.m.
Walker emerged not long afterward to address a cheering throng at the Waukesha County Expo Center. "Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people all across the globe, that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions," Walker said, referring to his stance against public employee collective bargaining that triggered the opposition to his tenure.
Barrett, speaking to his supporters in Milwaukee, urged them to stay involved and be open to working with the other side. "It's up to all of us, our side and the other side, to listen to each other," he said.
Walker also touched on the idea of conciliation.
"Tomorrow we are no longer opponents," Walker told his supporters. "Tomorrow we are one as Wisconsinites so we can move the state forward."
Former longtime Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, a candidate for U.S. Senate this year, called the election result "a complete and absolute repudiation of the recall." He said he believes it will help Republicans in November and hurt President Obama's prospects in Wisconsin. "The Democrats are demoralized," he said. "This puts Wisconsin in play."
Reince Priebus, the Republican Party's national chairman and former chair of Wisconsin's GOP, also was optimistic that Tuesday's results could be a harbinger. "It started here in Wisconsin," he said. "It's going to finish at the White House in November."
Tensions ran high across the state throughout Tuesday, with both the state attorney general, a Republican, and the U.S. Department of Justice, part of a Democratic administration, planning to send observers to the polls to watch for vote fraud and discrimination.
Lines of voters snaked out the door in some precincts as Wisconsinites turned out in numbers that were expected to easily exceed those of the 2010 general election.
The race gripped the state for nearly a year and a half of exhausting, emotional political warfare. The state has seen raucous, massive demonstrations at its Capitol, a walkout by Senate Democrats when Walker moved to greatly limit public unions' bargaining rights and two rounds of recall elections for state senators.
State and national unions threw manpower and resources into the fight, as did local and national conservative and business organizations, making Wisconsin an early test for some potential presidential themes. Expenditures by the candidates and interest groups were estimated at $61 million and counting, with Walker's $31 million war chest supplemented by huge contributions from out-of-state billionaires who have funded other conservative candidates and causes.
On Tuesday, as the battle came to its crescendo, Walker opponents held their 383rd "Solidarity Singalong" at the state Capitol in Madison, while Walker supporters here in his suburban Milwaukee base flocked to a phone bank in an empty warehouse for a frantic, last-minute attempt at boosting GOP turnout.
Walker, 44, is a first-term governor and now, thanks to his battles with unions, Democrats and liberal groups, a national political figure.
"I think most people are just happy to have the election over," Walker said as he cast his ballot Tuesday. "I think most people in the state want to have the attack ads off."
Barrett, 58, has led Milwaukee as its mayor since 2004 and previously served as a congressman and state legislator. He and Walker last tangled in the 2010 gubernatorial race, which Walker won by 6 percentage points. "Obviously, the lines are very, very long, which we take as a very encouraging sign," Barrett said while polls were still open. "People are engaged in this."
As the voting deadline approached Tuesday, Sara Rattan of Menomonee Falls was among volunteers making a last round of calls at the Republican victory center.
Rattan said she voted for Walker in 2010, but has never before been politically active. Rattan said she believes the recall process should be reserved for serious transgressions.
"I don't want to be in an endless cycle of recall elections," she said. "The whole state is in fatigue."
Volunteer JoLene Jannsen of Peewaukee said she is concerned about the kind of state and economy her grandchildren will face. If anyone should be subject to recall, she said, it was the Democratic state senators who left the state to deny Walker a quorum and delay passage of the collective-bargaining bill.
Working at a nearby food shelf, Jannsen said, has only convinced her of the suffering during a down economy and the need for Walker's pro-business attitude. "He's looking out for small-business people," she said.
At a Barrett campaign storefront in Portage, 90 miles west of Waukesha, volunteer Nance Kunde of Lodi said Walker deserved to be recalled because he hid his true agenda during his 2010 campaign.
"He really has betrayed the public trust," Kunde said. "He sold the electorate a bill of goods. He came into office and did the exact opposite."
Another Barrett supporter at the center, Jeff Mirate of Prairie du Sac, said the betrayals go beyond Walker's restrictions on collective bargaining. His canceling of a high-speed rail federal grant, his environmental policies and his cuts to the BadgerCare health program all run counter to Wisconsin values, Mirate said.
"Wisconsin has always been known as a progressive state," he said. "I think that the nation is watching us."
In Madison, Lynn Freeman, executive director of United Wisconsin, which planned and led the recall petition drive against Walker, said that whatever the outcome, Wisconsin will remain torn.
"No matter what happens tonight, the state is not unified," she said Tuesday before the votes were counted. "It's not done tomorrow."
Heading into Tuesday's recall, the Wisconsin Senate stood at 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats, with one open seat.
Democrats were clinging to the hope that they could win one of the four state Senate races on the recall ballot and take temporarily control of the Senate. Republicans easily won three races, but the fourth, in the Racine area, was too close to call as final precincts were being counted.
The balance of power in the state Senate could change again shortly. The Legislature is out of session, and half of the Senate is up for re-election in the normally scheduled general election in November.
Freeman said a deadlocked Senate could force a switch by Walker to a "more conciliatory" form of governing. But she's not banking on it.
"From a historic perspective, Scott Walker has never compromised," she said. "That's his governing style."
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042