WEST ALLIS — Gov. Scott Walker won his third governor’s race in four years Tuesday, giving him a second term to overhaul state government with fellow Republicans — and setting the stage for a possible presidential run.
Walker’s victory over Democratic challenger Mary Burke, whose only elective office had been as a Madison School Board member, was more decisive than many observers might have predicted even two weeks ago.
With 93 percent of the state’s wards reporting, Walker, 47, outpaced Burke, 55, in the Milwaukee suburbs, in Green Bay and the Fox Valley, and in most central and western counties. Burke won Dane and Milwaukee counties. An exit poll showed Walker led among whites, conservatives and independents along with those making more than $50,000 annually, who are married and who attend religious services regularly.
The race drew national attention, largely because Walker became a national conservative hero in 2011 after pushing through controversial legislation that all but ended collective bargaining for most of Wisconsin’s public workers.
A year later, Walker became the first governor to survive a recall, making him an increasingly popular speaker for conservative groups and candidates across the country. His 2013 book, “Unintimidated,” further fueled speculation he was weighing a 2016 presidential bid.
In seeking re-election, he refused to commit to serving a full four-year term. And he peppered his victory speech with references to what he considered mistakes made in Washington.
He called the difference between the way politicians work in Washington and Wisconsin “a sea change.”
“Now that’s a sea change, the difference between Washington and Wisconsin. You see, the folks in Washington like this top-down approach that’s old and artificial and outdated that says government knows best,” Walker said. “We believe that you should build the economy from the ground up. That’s new, and fresh, and organic, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
“We’re excited about the next four years,” he said. “That’s the difference between Washington and Wisconsin. They’re all against something; we’re all for something.”
In a speech to supporters in Madison, Burke said Walker “has my respect” as someone “who runs for higher office and subjects themselves to higher criticism.”
“It’s OK to be disappointed tonight, but it not’s OK to not get back up,” she said. “We’re going to dust ourselves off and get right back up.”
Also re-elected Tuesday was Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch as part of the Walker ticket. Outgoing Democratic state Sen. John Lehman of Racine had run with Burke.
Walker and Republican lawmakers — who maintained control of the Legislature — are expected to try to expand school vouchers statewide, require drug testing for people seeking unemployment benefits or food stamps, and push for further income and property tax cuts. But they also face projections of a growing budget shortfall of $1.8 billion.
Liberal lawyer Lester Pines predicted Tuesday that Republicans would seek further voting and abortion rights restrictions while also considering right-to-work legislation. Walker has said right-to-work isn’t a priority for him.
Since Walker and his fellow Republicans took control of state government in 2011, they have pushed through a broad conservative agenda, including the Act 10 public union limits, a controversial bill that relaxed the state’s mining regulations, a requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls, restrictions on abortion and redistricting maps.
Walker’s re-election battle was a much closer race than many political observers expected.
Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive and state Commerce secretary, had never sought statewide office. But she was the favored candidate of the state Democratic Party and she poured $5 million of her own money into the race.
Polls showed Walker and Burke virtually tied throughout the summer. The governor only pulled ahead with a lead that was outside the margin of error in the Marquette Law School Poll the week before Tuesday’s election.
But the same day the poll showed Walker up by 7 points, a conservative news outlet reported allegations that Burke had been fired from Trek Bicycle, her family’s company. Burke vigorously disputed the report.
The poll, and the allegations, appeared to swing momentum to Walker with less than a week to go before Election Day.
Throughout the campaign, Burke hammered Walker about failing to meet his pledge to help create 250,000 private-sector jobs in Wisconsin by the beginning of 2015, a promise he acknowledges he won’t meet. But he said that more than 100,000 jobs were created in Wisconsin over the last four years and said he didn’t think voters would punish him for aiming high.
The candidates clashed on a variety of issues, from abortion to the minimum wage. Burke supported raising the minimum wage to $10.10, while Walker said the wage has no purpose. Walker supports expanding the state’s private school voucher program, while Burke wants to scrap it. Burke supports the Common Core K-12 educational standards, while Walker is calling for replacing them with higher state-crafted standards. Walker rejected federal funds for a Medicaid expansion, while Burke said she would use the funds to expand the program.
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said when all the receipts are tallied it appears the governor’s race will surpass $60 million in spending and could even approach $70 million.
That would be by far the most ever spent on a midterm gubernatorial election, although it’s still short of the $81 million spent on the 2012 recall election. The 2010 gubernatorial contest between Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett set the previous midterm high water mark at $37.4 million.
Mary Daniel, 78, a retired UW-Madison faculty member who voted for Burke, called Walker “a disaster” and said her opposition goes beyond decisions he’s made.
“It’s his character,” she said. “I don’t believe a thing he says. If he said the sun is shining, I’d assume the moon is out.”
But Judy Hahn, 72, a retired city of Madison worker voting in Waunakee, credits Walker with being forthright and honest, even if that means he’s going to upset certain people. She said she hopes he runs for president in two years.
“Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful!” she said.
Donald Berry, 86, a retired pastor and another Walker voter in Waunakee, said he had read that Burke was “fired” from Trek. “Our state’s bigger than that bike shop,” he said.
Medical assistant Delana Jones of Verona said she voted for Burke to protest the divisiveness Walker had brought to the state.
“I’m exhausted by the anger, the venom out there,” Jones said. “Walker threw up a wall and divided people. That is not what Wisconsin is about.”