MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker, fresh from becoming the nation’s first governor to survive a recall election, wants to go about mending Wisconsin’s political divide in an egalitarian way: over brats and beer.
Walker defeated Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on Tuesday for the second time in year and a half, turning back a recall effort that began with the collection of more than 900,000 signatures seeking his ouster. It was only the third gubernatorial recall in U.S. history.
Now the rising Republican star is focusing his message on what lies ahead. His term runs through 2014 in a state that is still bitterly divided over his move to end collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
“It’s time to put our differences aside and find ways to work together to move Wisconsin forward,” Walker said in an interview minutes after his victory. “I think it’s important to fix things, but it’s also important to make sure we talk about it and involve people in the process.”
Walker planned to invite all members of the Legislature to meet as soon as next week over burgers, brats and “maybe a little bit of good Wisconsin beer.”
“The first step is just bringing people together and figuring out some way if we can thaw the ice,” he said.
Democrats, including Barrett, pledged to work together too. But the wounds are deep following the rancor of the recall, which was spurred by Walker’s surprise proposal to go after public employee unions.
“It is up to all of us, their side and our side, to listen. To listen to each other,” Barrett said.
State Rep. Peter Barca, Democratic minority leader in the Assembly, said healing Wisconsin won’t be easy.
“I hope Gov. Walker understands and stays true to his pledge to build consensus and be more inclusive going forward,” Barca said.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Walker had 53 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Barrett. The margin of victory was wider than many expected and slightly better than Walker’s 5.8 percentage-point victory over Barrett in the 2010 race. Some 2.5 million voters cast their ballots.
Democrats and organized labor spent millions to remove Walker, but found themselves hopelessly outspent by Republicans from across the country who donated record-setting sums to the governor’s campaign.
Walker’s win sets the stage for what is expected to be a hard-fought presidential battle.
Both sides in the presidential contest warned against reading too much into Tuesday’s results, but Walker’s solid victory is a warning for President Barack Obama in a state he comfortably carried in 2008 and that Democrats have won in six straight presidential elections. Romney has reason to be optimistic, given Walker’s own vigorous ground game, the framework of which he will inherit.
Still, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate showed no remorse for pursuing the recall, which was pushed by powerful union leaders and citizens with little or no political experience.
“This is a fight worth having,” Tate said. “Some things are worth losing over.”
Walker entered the national spotlight last year when he unveiled plans to plug a $3.6 billion budget shortfall in part by taking away the union rights of most public workers and requiring them to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits. It was one of his first moves in office, and it was explosive.
Democrats and labor leaders saw it as a political tactic designed to gut the power of his opposition. State Senate Democrats left Wisconsin for three weeks to avoid a vote on the measure, as tens of thousands of teachers, state workers and others rallied at the Capitol in protest.
But the tea-party-supported fiscal conservative remained steadfast. Walker believed his plan would help him control the state budget, and his opponents could not stop Republicans who control the state Legislature from approving his plans.
Walker went on to sign into law several other measures that fueled the recall; he repealed a law giving discrimination victims more ways to sue for damages, made deep cuts to public schools and higher education, and required voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Both sides mobilized thousands of people and millions of dollars to influence voters, whom polls showed were more divided than ever. Signs calling for Walker’s removal and those supporting the 44-year-old son of a minister dotted the state’s landscape all spring at a time normally devoid of political contests.
More than $66 million was spent on the race as of May 21, making it easily the most expensive in Wisconsin history. That money was spent on an all-out barrage of television ads, direct mail, automated calls and other advertising that permeated the state for months.
Also Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and at least three Republicans in state Senate races survived recalls. Unofficial results showed the Democrat ahead in the other Senate race, the outcome of which will determine which party controls the Senate at least through the end of the year.
Walker avoided gloating in his speech and offered his adversaries a fresh start.
“Now it is time to move on and move forward in Wisconsin,” Walker said in his speech. “Tomorrow is the day after the election, and tomorrow we are no longer opponents.”