WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker scored more than a personal victory in Tuesday's state recall vote. He delivered a psychological boost for the Republicans and a blow to Democrats that could linger until the November 6 U.S. presidential election.
Walker, a Republican, sailed to a surprisingly easy win over Democrat Tom Barrett, ending a bitter 15-month political battle over Walker's efforts to eliminate most collective-bargaining rights for Wisconsin's public sector unions.
Many of Walker's national supporters - who flooded the state with anti-Barrett ads and gave Walker a more than 7-to-1 financial advantage - saw the results as a vindication of his take-no-prisoners brand of fiscal conservatism.
They also said Walker passed what amounted to a test of voter sentiment on Republican efforts to limit government, slash spending and challenge public sector unions, a result that could elevate his stature in U.S. politics.
By late Tuesday, conservatives were viewing Walker's victory as a green light for Republican-led state legislatures and governments to move forward, and as a boost for Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney.
"This means the Republican revolution is on. (Democratic President) Barack Obama should start sweating," said Mordecai Lee, a government affairs specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"It will revitalize the Tea Party side of the national party to say, 'Mitt Romney should go even harder to the right.'"
"PRINCIPLED, SMALL GOVERNMENT"
The result will likely be seen as proof that well-funded Republicans backed by unlimited "Super PAC" spending can sway elections.
A key question will be whether Democrats, who have generally been slower to donate to such political groups, can keep pace with the massive spending by conservatives.
National polls show Obama and Republican rival Romney in a tight race, and the recall gave both sides a chance to mobilize supporters and gain momentum in a state that is a must-win for Obama in November.
Prominent conservative Richard Viguerie urged Romney's campaign to absorb the lesson of Walker's win and "shake off their moderate, establishment-Republican instincts".
"Walker won because he ran and governed as an unabashed principled, small government, constitutional conservative," Viguerie said in a statement. "If Mitt Romney will adopt those bold conservative colors for his campaign and his administration, he will win (in November)," he added.
In Wisconsin, which has backed Democrats in every presidential election since 1984, Obama did not risk any political capital on the recall and did not make any campaign appearances with Barrett.
But Tuesday's results suggest the president might have to spend more time and money campaigning in Wisconsin than initially planned.
Voters on Tuesday gave a muddled message on the presidential election.
Exit polls conducted by television networks showed voters preferring Obama over Romney by 7 percentage points and believing Obama would be better than Romney at handling the struggling economy.
But the reliability of the data was brought into question by early surveys that had forecast a virtual tie in the Walker-Barrett race.
Obama easily captured Wisconsin by 14 percentage points in the 2008 election, when he defeated Republican John McCain. Two years later, Republicans in Wisconsin roared back to elect Walker, defeat Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and take over the state legislature.
As Walker's victory became clear late Tuesday, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said her party was "not taking anything for granted, (but) if Mitt Romney thinks he's going to be the first Republican to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan (in 1984) ...he's got another thing coming."
Romney was quick to take advantage of Walker's victory.
"Tonight's results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin," the former Massachusetts governor said in a statement. "Tonight voters said 'no' to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and 'yes' to fiscal responsibility and a new direction."
The recall offered a fresh glimpse of the growth and power of unfettered campaign spending by partisan groups, even as they prepare to spend hundreds of millions on the presidential race and congressional elections.
"There is no question the forces that have been unleashed on this state are not unique to Wisconsin," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in state politics.
Walker had raised $31 million to Barrett's $4.2 million by May 21, with about 70 percent of Walker's 2012 donations coming from out-of-state donors, according to finance reports compiled by the watchdog group.
Out-of-state Conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, also poured millions into Wisconsin and filled the state's airwaves with anti-Barrett ads.
A late push by Democrat-aligned groups helped close the gap. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimated Republican groups spent $18 million in the state and Democratic groups, mostly union-backed, spent $15.5 million.
The final recall price tag is estimated to be $70 million to $80 million.
Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, said on Tuesday he was not disappointed that Obama did not campaign with him and said he kept his focus on the economic worries of Wisconsin residents.
"I don't want Wisconsin to be the experimental dish for the right wing," Barrett said on CNN.
"There are some, particularly on the other side, who do want to nationalize this. I want this to be all about Wisconsin families, about Wisconsin jobs, about the future of this state, not the future of political dreams of people who don't live in this state."