PEWAUKEE, Wis. (USA TODAY) - Wisconsin voters decided Tuesday to keep their Republican governor, whose contentious but successful battle to end collective-bargaining rights for most state workers resulted in a hard-fought recall campaign.
Gov. Scott Walker turned back the recall challenge from Democrat Tom Barrett. Walker had defeated Barrett in the 2010 election.
The race was closely watched nationally for clues about fallout for other elected officials who cut workers' benefits to ease crunched budgets. There also could be implications in the presidential race between President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney in a state with 10 electoral votes that both would like to win.
"It suggests that Wisconsin's in play" in the presidential race, said Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist. "This is a state that's competitive."
Other analysts said Walker and the state's Republican Party will be strengthened after winning the rematch with Barrett.
"He's empowered and emboldened" after withstanding the Democrats' efforts to recall him, said Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"He withstood as much heavy artillery as any governor could," said Brandon Scholz, a Republican lobbyist and strategist based in Madison. Other elected officials, he said, "will take that lesson and apply it in their state" with austerity proposals.
"People are going to realize the presidential race and U.S. Senate race and the Legislature are up for grabs," says Paul Maslin, a Madison-based Democratic pollster.
Voting appeared to be heavy with lines at some polling places.
"I think most people are just happy to have the election over," Walker said . "I think most voters of the state want to have all the attack ads off."
In the 2010 gubernatorial election, Walker defeated Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, 52%-46%. Polls had showed Walker with a narrow lead going into Tuesday's vote.
The polling site at Queen of Apostles Catholic School here saw a steady stream of voters. Bob DeFrehn, 57, said he voted for Barrett and had collected signatures to help qualify the recall for the ballot.
"I can't stand Walker," said DeFrehn, an unemployed former union worker. "If he would have said he planned to end collective bargaining, he would never have gotten elected in the first place."
Dawn Suvegian, 50, a hospital clerk, is a self-described Tea Party member who did volunteer work for the Walker campaign. She called the recall "a waste of money."
"He did exactly what he said he would do and he stuck to his guns," she said.
STORY: Recall targets Walker, reversal of union rights
At Pewaukee Village Hall, the 355 people who voted in the first three hours alone represented 19% of those registered in this polling place.
Radio announcer Glenn Hansen, 59, is a conservative who said he sometimes votes for Democrats but this time voted for Walker. "You can't argue with the record," he said. The governor erased the state's budget deficit, created a surplus and "nobody got fired," Hansen said.
Kate Brockman, 25, a student, and Paul Provinzano, 31, who works at a gas station, arrived together to vote for Barrett. She doesn't have a party affiliation; he usually votes for Democrats.
Walker, Brockman said, "divided our state and he's taken away our rights. Barrett can bring us back together."
The recall election is the culmination of a bitter battle that began in February 2011 when Walker announced his plan to erase a $137 million budget shortfall in part by requiring state workers to give up collective-bargaining rights and pay more for health insurance and pension benefits.
Recalls of four Republican state senators also are on Tuesday's ballot. The results in those races could shift control of the Senate, which is now divided 16-16.
Walker's proposals triggered massive protests in the state Capitol in Madison and prompted 14 Democratic state senators to leave the state for three weeks. Walker signed the legislation into law in March 2011.
On Tuesday, early voting was brisk in Madison. For days, pro-Barrett volunteers have swarmed neighborhoods with literature and signs, trying to boost turnout in the Democratic stronghold.
At one east side polling place, a line formed before the doors opened and turnout already stood at 10% within the first hour. State election officials expected turnout in the 60-65% range.
The house across from the governor's official state residence displayed a "We Stand With Scott Walker" sign. The house two doors down: "Tom Barrett for Governor."
"Unfortunately, Wisconsin has become in some ways a microcosm of the partisan wars that have been raging nationally," said Kathleen Dolan, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist.
Regardless of the recall's results, she said, it will take some time for the state to recover from the divisive debate and revive bipartisan spirit in the Legislature. "We really are at a place of sort of paralysis," Dolan said.
The amount of out-of-state money flowing to the campaigns here and the appearances of high-profile supporters of Walker and Barrett are evidence of the race's national overtones. More than $62 million has been spent by the candidates and outside groups. Much of the $30 million raised by Walker came from outside the state. Barrett has spent about $4 million; most of his donors live in Wisconsin.
Former president Bill Clinton campaigned with Barrett, and fellow Republican Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana appeared with Walker. State election officials expect turnout in the 60-65% range.
No Republican presidential candidate has won Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Obama defeated Republican John McCain here in 2008, 56%-42%.
Brandon Scholz, a Republican lobbyist and campaign strategist based in Madison, said a Walker victory would weaken the clout of the labor unions that provide campaign cash and infrastructure for Democratic presidential candidates.
"It would be a significant blow," he said. "It would ... say to them, 'You cannot rule the roost.' "
Paul Maslin, a Madison-based Democratic pollster, thinks some independent voters will vote for Walker on Tuesday and Obama in November - and for the same reason. "They're saying, 'I think the economy is getting a little better in Wisconsin,' " he said.
Dolan cautioned against reading too many presidential implications into Wisconsin's political fight. "Will Obama's chance of winning Wisconsin be made harder if Walker wins? Sure, maybe a little," she said. "But what's going on here is so episodic and so idiosyncratic."