Gov. Scott Walker's lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, says, "Years from now they will say the campaign to save America began tonight in Wisconsin." Democrats seemed less sure about the meaning of Walker's victory.

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose decision to cut collective-bargaining rights for most public workers set off a firestorm in a state usually known for political civility, held on to his job Tuesday, becoming the first U.S. governor to survive a recall election and dealing a painful blow to Democrats and labor unions.

Walker soundly defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrats’ nominee in the recall attempt, with more than 99 percent of precincts reporting. The victory by Walker, a Republican who was forced into an election to save his job less than two years into his first term, ensures that Republicans largely retain control of this state’s capital, and his fast-rising political profile is likely to soar still higher among conservatives.

Walker’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and four GOP state senators also held their seats in the recall effort.

“Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders that stand up and make the tough decisions,” Walker said in Waukesha.

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He said he hoped to meet soon with Democratic and Republican lawmakers over brats, burgers and beer. He cut off the crowd when they booed a mention of Barrett.

“Tomorrow is the day after the election, and tomorrow we are no longer opponents,” Walker said. “We are one as Wisconsinites.”

Barrett told his backers in downtown Milwaukee: “Never ever stop doing what you think is right. That’s what makes this such a great country.”

In Waukesha, some Republican voters said the result ended the most volatile partisan fight in memory, one that boiled over 16 months ago in the collective-bargaining fight and expanded into scuffles about spending, jobs, taxes, the role and size of government, and more.

In San Antonio, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Walker’s victory shows voters want to cut spending and the results, in his words, “echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.”

Kleefisch was even more emphatic. “Years from now they will say the campaign to save America began tonight in Wisconsin,” she said.

Democrats, some of whom already are pledging to mount strong challenges for state lawmakers’ seats in November, seemed less sure about the meaning of Walker’s victory.

In an interview with a Madison TV station, state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate noted Walker outspent Barrett by millions of dollars and said the state would support President Obama, as it did by a double-digit margin in 2008.

“Wisconsin is not now a red state,” Tate said. “It’s a mistake to call it a red state, and it will not be that in November. It’s a purple state.”

The result raised broader questions about the strength of labor groups, which had called hundreds of thousands of voters and knocked on thousands of doors. The outcome also seemed likely to embolden leaders in other states who have considered limits to unions as a way to solve budget problems, but had watched the backlash against Walker with worry.

Walker had a strong financial advantage in part because a quirk in state law allowed him months of unlimited fundraising, from the time the recall challenge was mounted to when the election officially was called. As of late last month, about $45.6 million had been spent on behalf of Walker, compared with about $17.9 million for Barrett, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks spending.

“What it shows is the peril of corporate dollars in an election and the dangers of Citizens United,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a school workers’ union, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that barred federal restrictions on political expenditures from corporations, unions and other groups.

Voters went to the polls in droves, and some polling places needed extra ballots. A final flurry of television advertising — with Walker outspending Barrett by a 7-to-1 ratio — seemed to have little impact. Nearly nine in every 10 people said they had made up their minds before May, according to exit polls.

The recall race carried implications beyond Wisconsin, particularly in the escalating fight between wealthy conservative donors and labor unions. Many GOP contributors from across the country who have invested millions in the presidential race also sent checks to Walker, hoping to inflict wounds on organized labor, a key Democratic constituency.

The outcome also was being monitored closely in Boston by Romney’s campaign and in Chicago at Obama’s re-election headquarters for a signal of how the electorate is viewing the big issues. Obama kept his distance from Wisconsin, to the dismay of many Democrats, in an effort to avoid alienating independent voters.

Obama leads Romney in Wisconsin, according to exit polls. Voters also said they saw the president as better-equipped to improve the economy and help the middle class.

In Wisconsin, the first state to provide collective-bargaining rights to public employees, sentiment for unionized workers remains split. A narrow majority of voters Tuesday had a favorable view of public unions, according to exit polling, while more than four in every 10 said they held an unfavorable view.

One-third of voters were from union households, up from one-quarter in the 2010 governor’s election.

The political war in Wisconsin began in February 2011 when Walker, only weeks into his first term, announced he needed to cut benefits and collective-bargaining rights for most public workers as a way to solve an expected state budget deficit of $3.6 billion.

Tens of thousands of union supporters and Democrats protested in Madison, the capital, and the state Senate’s Democrats — a minority but with enough members to prevent a quorum — went into hiding in Illinois to try, unsuccessfully, to prevent a vote on the bill.

By January, Walker’s critics delivered more than 900,000 signatures on petitions to recall him, far more than the one-quarter of voters from the past election that state law requires.

The election, which cost up to $18 million to carry out, raised another debate: Is philosophical disagreement enough to remove officials? Or should they be accused of wrongdoing?

“Recall was never meant to be used just because you don’t like the way the other side is governing,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.

Numerous efforts have been made over the years to recall U.S. governors, but only three, including the push to remove Walker, met the requirements to place the matter on the ballot. California Gov. Gray Davis was removed in 2003, and North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier was unseated in 1921.

Compiled from The New York Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune

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