* Walker is first U.S. governor to survive recall
* Victory is blow for labor unions
* Vote boosts Republican hopes in presidential election
* Test of strength between unions and conservatives
By Nick Carey
MILWAUKEE, June 5 Wisconsin's Scott Walker
became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall
election on Tuesday in a decisive victory that dealt a blow to
the labor movement and raised Republican hopes of defeating
President Barack Obama in the November election.
Unions and liberal activists forced the recall election over
a law curbing collective bargaining powers for public sector
workers passed soon after Walker took office in 2011.
With nearly all of the votes counted, Republican Walker won
by 8 percentage points over Democratic challenger Milwaukee
Mayor Tom Barrett, a bigger victory for the governor over the
same challenger than two years ago.
Republicans around the country were elated by the result in
a state that President Obama won by 14 percentage points in
Obama's presumed Republican opponent in November, former
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, called Walker to
congratulate him, an aide to Romney said. Romney had called
Walker a "hero" when he visited Wisconsin earlier this year.
"A win like this shows Wisconsin may be a redder (more
Republican) state in 2012 and could be bad news for Obama," said
Thad Kousser, an associate politics professor at the University
of California San Diego.
Even Obama's campaign organization conceded on Tuesday that
Wisconsin could be competitive in November. No Republican has
won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Walker's win may also embolden Republican governors in other
states to take on labor unions, analysts said.
"The unions tried to take a stand here and when you stake
everything on one election and lose, politicians around the
country will not be afraid to take on the unions," Kousser said.
The victory also branded Walker as a rising Republican star.
While he has ruled out serving as Romney's vice presidential
nominee, he may be a future national candidate.
Walker struck a conciliatory tone in his victory speech,
saying he wanted to try to bring the divided state together.
"Early in 2011, I rushed in to try to fix things before I
talked about them. Because you see for years, too many
politicians ... talked about things but never fixed them,"
Walker said to a crowd of roaring supporters.
The election in politically divided Wisconsin has been seen
as a barometer of the U.S. political climate going into
November's presidential election.
The outcome is the latest evidence of a growing partisan
climate in American politics that values confrontation over
compromise and has led to gridlock in Washington.
It also suggests that some voters will support a politician
who seeks to balance the government budget by cutting spending
and reducing pensions and benefits for government workers rather
than raising taxes.
Some voters in Wisconsin said it was only fair that union
workers pay more pensions and health insurance when most private
sector workers have no pensions at all.
Kent Redfield, a political analyst at the University of
Illinois at Springfield, said the outcome could demoralize
Democrats and labor unions. "That could have an effect on
turnout in the fall," he said.
Ahead of the recall election, organized labor and
conservatives mounted intense get-out-the-vote drives.
Grassroots activists in the conservative Tea Party played a
major role in those efforts on the right.
"This is a huge win for the Tea Party," said Matt Batzel,
Wisconsin state director of national conservative group American
Majority Action, which worked with local activists. "Time after
time they have answered the call to defend Scott Walker," he
said of the group that seeks deep cuts in U.S. government
Voter turnout was high in the state where families were at
odds and neighbors were not speaking to each over Walker's push
to curtail collective bargaining by public sector workers.
The recall election led to huge campaign spending in the
Midwestern Rust Belt state, with some estimates that more than
$60 million was raised. So-called Super PACs, the independent
groups that are pouring money into the U.S. presidential
campaign, were a major force in Wisconsin.
This was just the third recall election of a governor in
U.S. history and it follows weeks of vociferous protests by
demonstrators who occupied the state Capitol in Madison as
Walker and fellow Republican lawmakers pushed through the union
curbs in March 2011.
The law forced most state workers, including teachers, to
pay more for health insurance and pensions, limited their pay
raises, made payment of union dues voluntary and forced unions
to be recertified every year.
Democrats and unions gathered nearly 1 million signatures to
force the recall election.
Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of
California Berkeley, cautioned that the Wisconsin result does
not mean there will be a wholesale assault on unions nationwide.
"This is clearly a victory for Walker, but it's been a very
costly and disruptive victory," he said. "Some legislators (in
other states) will try to go down the same path but they may
find it very expensive to do so."
In addition to Walker, opponents forced recall elections for
Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and four state
senators who had voted for the labor union restrictions.
Kleefisch and three of the four Senate Republicans were
victorious. In the fourth race the Republican was leading.
If that result holds up, Walker will continue in office with
a Republican-majority legislature.
Despite the victory, Walker has not emerged completely
unscathed. He still faces an investigation into alleged
corruption during his time as Milwaukee County executive before
he became governor.
The only two previous recall efforts against sitting
governors were Lynn Frazier in North Dakota in 1921 and Gray
Davis in California in 2003. Both lost.