Wisconsin gave Gov. Scott Walker a renewed lease Tuesday, voting to keep the Republican in office in a recall election that amounted to an embrace of his union-busting, government-trimming agenda in this traditionally Democratic-leaning state.
Mr. Walker staved off a challenge from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a race that had appeared ripe for Democrats to win just a few months ago.
But national Democrats were late to get involved, and President Obama kept his distance, leaving the field to Mr. Walker and outside groups on both sides that poured tens of millions of dollars into television advertising and turn-out-the-vote operations.
“Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country and we tell people across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions,” Mr. Walker said at his victory party. “Now it is time to move on and move forward in Wisconsin.”
He painted himself and his supporters as modern-day heirs of the country’s founders who met in Philadelphia, but he also sounded a conciliatory note, saying he learned lessons from the past year and a half in office.
He also said he would gather the Legislature later this month to seek common ground.
“I’m committed to everybody back at home, whether you voted for me or not,” he said.
Mr. Walker’s conciliatory approach may be critical going forward. While Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican state senators survived their own recall elections, a fourth did not.
Democrat John Lehman claimed victory over state Sen. Van Wanggaard in a race in Racine that erases the GOP’s one-seat majority in the upper chamber and turns control over to Democrats.
Labor unions, who fought bitterly to punish Mr. Walker and his Senate allies, took some comfort in that result.
Mr. Walker is the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall and is the first to survive, and analysts said the result will be seen as a stinging rebuke to labor unions that had rallied to defeat him.
Tea party groups, meanwhile, said it marked a victory for them, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said Wisconsin voters had “rewarded political courage” in retaining Mr. Walker.
Mr. Walker won by 7 percentage points, topping his margin of victory in 2010, when he first was elected to the governor’s mansion in the tea-party-powered Republican wave. With all but a handful of precincts reporting, Mr. Walker led 53 percent to 46 percent.
“The state remains divided,” Mr. Barrett said in conceding, and he pleaded for his voters to stay energized in upcoming elections. “There are more chapters to come, and in those chapters it is my sincere hope that all of us here will remain engaged.”
Turnout was heavy across the state as the election tapped into bitter feelings on both sides, in what is likely a preview of the deep divisions that will play out nationally ahead of November’s presidential election.
Still, the results don’t necessarily translate into support for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Exit polls showed recall voters still preferred Mr. Obama in November.
Around the country, voters also picked congressional candidates in primaries in a half-dozen states and voted in presidential primaries in five states.
On the ballot were key incumbent-incumbent matchups in New Jersey, where Rep. Bill Pascrell defeated fellow Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman, and in California, where Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman were seeking win the Democratic nomination for a House seat in the San Fernando Valley.
In New Mexico, Republicans officially tapped former Rep. Heather Wilson as their nominee for U.S. Senate, while Democrats nominated Rep. Martin Heinrich to be their Senate candidate.
In Wisconsin, the recall was a do-over of the 2010 election, when Mr. Walker topped Mr. Barrett by 6 percentage points. The GOP also captured control of Wisconsin’s Legislature, paving the way for Mr. Walker’s agenda.
That included his proposal to strip most state public employees of collective bargaining rights and to ask them to pay more into their retirement plans — moves that ignited a national debate about government workers versus their private-sector counterparts.
State workers protested and even staged a mass takeover of Wisconsin’s Capitol, and Democrats walked out of the Senate to prevent a quorum for action. But Mr. Walker and his legislative allies altered the legislation so it no longer needed a special quorum and pushed the bill through.
Several other newly-minted Republican governors made similar efforts — though Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s push was overturned by state voters in a referendum last year.
The efforts spawned a major backlash among union leaders, who said they were disappointed in Mr. Walker’s victory but took comfort in the fact that they had swung the balance of power in Wisconsin’s Senate.
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel took particular pride in the fact that Mr. Lehman, who appeared to have unseated Mr. Wanggaard, is a former high school teacher.
“The defeat of one of Scott Walker’s allies will put a much needed check on Walker’s attacks on middle-class families and help turn the page on one of the most divisive periods in Wisconsin political history,” Mr. Van Roekel said.
Three other Republican senators won their recall elections handily, but Mr. Lehman’s victory completes an effort begun last year to punish senators who aided Mr. Walker.
Last year they forced recall elections for six Republican senators, and the GOP forced recall elections for three Democrats. The three Democratic incumbents won, and two Democratic challengers unseated Republicans, but that still left them one seat shy of retaking the majority.
Mr. Lehman’s victory this year completes the flip.
The White House rejected the contention the election was a referendum on Mr. Obama, who won the state in 2008 but who wasn’t paying much attention to the race, according to press secretary Jay Carney.
“A race where one side is outspending the other by a ratio of at least 8 to 1 probably won’t tell us much about a future race,” Mr. Carney said.
That view was bolstered by exit polls that showed voters who turned out for the recall preferred Mr. Obama to Mr. Romney.
A Republican hasn’t won the state in a presidential race since Ronald Reagan.
But Mr. Romney held out hope, saying the results “will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.”
“Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back — and prevail — against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses,” Mr. Romney said. “Tonight voters said ‘no’ to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and ‘yes’ to fiscal responsibility and a new direction.”
Still, Wisconsin did vote for a Republican for U.S. Senate in 2010 and will test its national bent again this year in the race for retiring Sen. Herb Kohl’s seat.