WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, was taking heart Wednesday from a rare and boisterous Wisconsin election where voters rejected a bid by labor unions and Democrats to oust the state’s conservative governor in the middle of his term.
The vote also sent a warning to Obama, who easily carried the Midwestern state four years ago but may face a harder time in November.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker “has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back – and prevail – against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses,” Romney said Tuesday night. “Voters said no to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and yes to fiscal responsibility and a new direction.”
He added that Walker’s victory “will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.”
Walker, a rising Republican star who enjoys support from the deeply conservative tea party movement, became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt as he soundly defeated his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. There had been only two previous attempts to oust a state governor in midterm, and both succeeded.
The recall vote grew out of Walker’s decision to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights. After weeks of angry protests in the state capitol building, Walker opponents collected more than 900,000 signatures to force the recall vote.
Walker also signed into law several other measures that fueled the recall effort, including making deep cuts to public schools and higher education, and requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Democrats and organized labor spent millions to oust Walker but found themselves hopelessly outmatched by Republicans from across the country who donated record-setting sums.
Walker and Republicans outspent Barrett and Democrats $47 million to $19 million, according to the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. That made it the most expensive in Wisconsin history.
Walker’s huge funding advantage was a result of a 2010 decision by the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court that allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns. With American labor growing increasingly weak, high-rolling business interests swamped the Barrett campaign.
That spending surge is seen in the presidential race as well.
Nationwide polls show Obama and Romney locked in a virtual tie with the election still five months away, and politically divided states like Wisconsin will be critical to the outcome.
Walker’s victory was an ominous sign for Obama about the mood of voters, especially in Wisconsin, where a Republican presidential candidate has not carried the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Romney now plans to compete in the state aggressively. “The close vote Tuesday confirms that Wisconsin will be a swing state,” said Republican strategist Terry Nelson, an adviser to George W. Bush.
With the economy the top issue in the presidential election, the victory for Wisconsin conservatives shows deep support for Romney’s decision to endorse Walker’s budget-slashing, tax-cutting tea party fiscal plans at the national level.
Obama had supported Barrett, although he did not campaign in the state for him. But the president’s Wisconsin campaign director, Trippe Wellde, pointed to a bright spot for Democrats: Exit polls showed voters favored Obama over Romney, even though a majority supported Walker’s bid to finish the remainder of his four-year term.
An exit poll of voters Tuesday that was conducted for The Associated Press showed that Obama had a 51-44 percent edge over Romney, and more voters said the president would do a better job improving the economy and helping middle-class voters than Romney would. A sizable one in five, however, said they trust neither party’s candidate on the economy.
Another warning sign for Obama: Independent voters, who made up a third of the recall electorate and typically decide close elections, broke for Walker 53-45.
Throughout the campaign, Walker maintained his policies had set the state on the right economic track.
“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.