Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Survives Recall

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, just the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall effort, is now the first to successfully defeat such an attempt. The Associated Press projected that Walker would defeat Milwaukee's Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett in what was a rematch of the 2010 gubernatorial election.

The race was closely watched nationwide because it became a proxy of sorts for national politics. At the macro level, it was about different visions for the role of government. But it all stemmed from legislation, championed by Walker, that severely limited the collective-bargaining rights of public employees.

Walker became a hero to some who saw public unions as a special interest that feed mercilessly off taxpayers and a foe to those who thought he was dismantling the fabric that gave workers a decent life and the prospect of a happy retirement.


It was a brutal 17 months that saw nonstop protests. Unions and Democrats collected more than 900,000 signatures to trigger only the third gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history. But in the end, the GOP outraised and outmaneuvered Democrats in the state. Walker raised $30.5 million, while Barrett raised only about $4 million.

In a statement, Walker said it was time to move past the divisions.

"Bringing our state together will take some time, but I hope to start right away," Walker said. "It is time to put our differences aside and figure out ways that we can move Wisconsin forward."

But at the State Capitol in Madison, the mood was one of disbelief. One Barrett supporter said Walker had destroyed the progress unions had made in the past 50 years.

Maureen Zarrella, a retired teacher from St. Charles, Ill., who had participated in anti-Walker rallies in Madison and Chicago told NPR's Liz Halloran that she feared Walker's agenda "will be a template for the rest of the country."


"I just hope we can keep up the courage, keep up the fight," she said.

As NPR Political Junkie Ken Rudin has reminded us, the two governors to have been recalled were Lynn Frazier of North Dakota, who was in his third two-year term when he was recalled in October 1921 and Gray Davis of California, who was recalled in October 2003.

We live-blogged all night, so keep reading if you want to see how it all developed.

Update at 11:53 p.m. ET. Still In Opposition:

In a statement, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin said that while they congratulate Walker, they still oppose his policies. Mike Tate, the party chair in the state, said:

"Because the debate must continue. Unions must be able to bargain collectively and provide workers with basic protections. The middle class must not be asked to give up protections built together over the years even while the richest among us sacrifice not at all. Our elected officials must speak with the public honestly and operate an open government, not flout our laws and our norms.

"And finally, regardless of party, Wisconsin must be Wisconsin again, without the big money Tea Party influence that has colonized our state, turned neighbor-against-neighbor and created an idea dangerous to democracy, that our very government is up for sale."

Update at 11:40 p.m. ET. Making The Tough Decisions:

"In times of crisis what has made America amazing ... is that there have been men and women of courage ... who thought the future of their children and grandchildren is more important than their political future," Walker said during his victory speech.

"Voters want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions," he said.

But Walker also talked about moving forward.

"Tomorrow we are no longer opponents," said Walker.

The governor admitted that when he took on collective bargaining, he did so in haste. He said during this recall process, he has learned that it's also important to "listen."

"Now is the time to come together," Walker said.

Update at 11:24 p.m. ET. An Update On Results:

At this point, it seems obvious that the exit polls under-counted the Walker vote. The exit polls predicted a four-point victory for Walker. But with 83 percent of precincts reporting, Walker has a huge nine-point lead. That's a wider margin than which he won the governorship in 2010.

The pro-Barrett "light brigade," whose participants in recent weeks had positioned themselves at dusk on highway over passes.
Liz Halloran
The pro-Barrett "light brigade," whose participants in recent weeks had positioned themselves at dusk on highway over passes.

Update at 11:05 p.m. ET. The Scene Outside The Capitol:

NPR's Liz Halloran is at the State Capitol in Madison. That building became the epicenter of the anti-Walker movement. Liz sent us this report:

"The result and its swift arrival left the anti-Walker crowd here in stunned disbelief.

"'Given the polls, I thought it would be close and wouldn't be called until late,' said John Matthews, 72, who has been executive director of the local teachers' union for 44 years.

"'What we have built here the last 50 years has been destroyed by Walker. To say there's a 23-point margin — I don't think that's possible,' he said, after comforting a teacher who was in tears.

"He and others said reports of high voter turnout in Democratic strongholds like Madison and Milwaukee made the results difficult to believe.

"Maureen Zarrella, a retired teacher from St. Charles, Ill., who has participated in anti-Walker rallies in Madison and Chicago says she fears Walker's agenda 'will be a template for the rest of the country.'

"'I just hope we can keep up the courage, keep up the fight,' she said."

Update at 11:02 p.m. ET. Echo Beyond Wisconsin:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney released a statement that read in part:

"Tonight's results will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin. Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back – and prevail – against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses.

"Tonight voters said 'no' to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and 'yes' to fiscal responsibility and a new direction. I look forward to working with Governor Walker to help build a better, brighter future for all Americans."

Update at 10:43 p.m. ET. 'Time To Put Differences Aside':

In an interview with the AP, Gov. Scott Walker said the win "feels good." He also said it was "time to put our differences aside."

Update at 10:33 p.m. ET. Money Vs. Ideas:

A lot of what you will hear coming out of this election is that Democrats were outspent big. That's true, as we told you earlier. Walker raised $30.5 million, while Barrett raised only about $4 million.

But as Don Gonyea told our Newscast unit earlier today, Walker raised that much money because big donors — millionaires and billionaires — saw him "as someone who's standing up to Democrats and big labor." They view Walker as a hero, said Don.

And this was also a crucial election for unions. "Do or die," Don said.

David Gergen, on CNN, said money matters but so do basic, core ideas. He said that walking around Wisconsin you heard people really debating the issue of unions, saying "unions are too costly and are costing us too much money." This election, said Gergen, means people decided "they couldn't afford it."

Update at 10:18 p.m. ET. A Tea Party Victory:

In a statement, the Tea Party Express said this race gained national attention because it echoes the themes at stake in November.

"It was a battle between conservatives policies that successfully balanced the budget and encouraged economic growth, and the big government policies found under the Obama administration," Amy Kremer, chairman of Tea Party Express said in a statement. "Tonight we sent a message that should shake Obama's Chicago headquarters: tea party momentum is going to be coming strong and mercilessly in November."

Indeed, as The Washington Post reports, this race started as a swift reaction against Tea Party ideals. Remember that to get to this point, Walker opponents had to collect thousands of signatures to trigger a recall election.

But as the Post points out, the recall campaign simply energized Republicans and they were able to raise huge money and expand its turnout operation "where Democrats traditionally have the edge."

Update at 10:07 p.m. ET. AP Calls The Race:

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has survived his recall election, the AP projects.

The AP adds:

"Walker becomes the first governor in American history to stay in
office after a recall challenge.

"The Republican governor rose to national prominence last year after taking on public-sector unions shortly after being sworn in. That fight also triggered the recall and set up a rematch with Tom Barrett, who was defeated by Walker in 2010."

Update at 10:03 p.m. ET. The Scene In Madison:

NPR's Liz Halloran sends us this update from Madison:

"Hundreds have gathered on the steps of Wisconsin's state Capitol in Madison to await election results, cheering a group of bagpipers in red fire hats, singing and clapping as the almost exclusively pro-Barrett crowd continues to swell. A core group had been meeting daily to sing and demonstrate at the Capitol since protests began in early 2011."

Update at 9:58 p.m. ET. ABC News And CNN Call It For Walker:

ABC and CNN are now joining the fray calling the race for Walker.

Update at 9:55 p.m. ET. NBC News Calls It For Walker:

NBC News is projecting that Walker has survived the recall election. The call comes just as news organizations got updated exit poll numbers that indicated Walker had a four point lead over Barrett.

With about 21 percent of the precincts counted, Walker maintains a sizable lead of 61 percent to 38 percent.

Update at 9:28 p.m. Dems Need A Big Turnout:

The New York Times' statistics guru Nate Silver tweets:

"Exit polls show a tie, but Walker's numbers look pretty decent so far in rural Wisconsin. Dems will need huge Milwaukee/Madison turnout."

Which, if you believe Democrats, they've gotten. Here's what Times' Jeff Zeleny says on Twitter:

"Wisconsin Dems report that the final two hours in Milwaukee showed heavy turnout. Same-day registration forms were going like hotcakes."

Update at 9:23 p.m. ET. First Results:

Results are now trickling in. They don't mean much, of course, but with 2.25 percent of precincts reporting, Walker leads with 54 percent. Barrett has 45 percent.

Update at 9:12 p.m. ET. In Exit Polls, Obama Maintains Big Lead:

According to CNN, exit polls show that Obama has a sizable — 54 percent to 42 percent — lead over Romney in the state.

One thing we've neglected to touch on is that Obama did not campaign for Barrett. All the president did was send out a tweet last night in which he said, "It's Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow, and I'm standing by Tom Barrett. He'd make an outstanding governor. -bo"

Note that it was signed by him, which the White House has said means it was sent by the president himself.

Update at 9:01 p.m. ET. Exit Polls Show A Tight Race:

Polls have closed in Wisconsin and we may be in for a long night. CNN's exit poll data could not show a tighter race. The vote is split 50/50 between Walker and Barrett.

NBC News agrees. Chuck Todd tweets:

"We are officially saying WI is 'too close to call'; Precinct exit data indicates total coin flip."

Update at 8:58 p.m. ET. Protesters Gather:

The Capitol in Madison has been the scene of nonstop protests for more than a year. Scott Bauer, an AP correspondent in Wisconsin, tweets that's not changing tonight:

"Protesters gathering outside Wis Capitol awaiting results in #wirecall, heavy police presence. Polls close in 4 minutes"

Update at 8:45 p.m. ET. Voters Uncomfortable With Recalls:

We've got about 15 minutes to go before polls close in Wisconsin. So we'll use that time to point to another interesting bit from tonight's exit polls.

As The Washington Post reports, voters have been traditionally uncomfortable with recalls.

"Just three sitting governors have faced a recall vote in all of U.S. history," the Post reports.

In fact, of those who voted today, 60 percent said recalls are only appropriate because of misconduct. Of course that differed depending on party. The Post reports:

"Republicans said by a near unanimous margin that recall elections are never appropriate or only appropriate in the case of official misconduct. But slight majority of Democratic voters said recall elections are appropriate 'for any reason.'"

Update at 8:25 p.m. ET. A Record-Breaker:

$63.5 million. That's how much the Center for Public Integrity calculates both candidates and independent groups spent on the recall election in Wisconsin. That eclipses the previous record of $37.4 million set in during the governor's race in 2010.

And most of that money came from outside the state. Here's CPI with some details:

"While Barrett has received about 26 percent of his $4 million in campaign donations from outside the Badger State, Walker has drawn nearly two-thirds of his $30.5 million contributions from out of state, according to campaign filings released May 29. Walker has outraised Barrett 7 1/2 to 1 since late 2011, though Barrett didn't enter the race until late March."

Update at 8:13 p.m. ET. What The Polls Say:

If you look at polls, Walker has an edge over Barrett tonight. He has polled at around 50 percent over the past month or so. Real Clear Politics, which tracks polls, says that on average Walker leads by 6.7 points.

Yesterday, Nate Silver, The New York Times' statistics guru, made a bold prediction. He said using one statistical model, Walker has a 95 percent chance of winning.

Silver adds:

"One of the new polls over the weekend, from Public Policy Polling, which conducts polling on behalf of Democratic clients as well as publishes its own polls independently, showed a somewhat tighter race, with Mr. Walker's Democratic opponent, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, having closed his deficit to three percentage points. However, the firm has showed somewhat more favorable results for Mr. Barrett than other polling firms, and this reflected a relatively minor change from the firm's previous poll, which had Mr. Walker ahead by five percentage points.

"At the same time, the Public Policy Polling survey had Mr. Walker at 50 percent of the vote and had very few undecided voters. The presence of undecided voters tends to correlate with higher unpredictability on Election Day, while the absence of them, as in this case, means that even a small lead is more likely to hold up."

Update at 7:47p.m. ET. Heavy Turnout:

How significant is this recall election in Wisconsin? In some places, the turnout is being compared to the turnout for 2008's presidential election. That's what NPR's Don Gonyea reported on All Things Considered this afternoon. In some precincts, said Don, turnout could exceed 100 percent.

And, yes, that's possible when same-day registration is allowed.

NPR's Liz Halloran is in the southside of Milwaukee and reports that turnout in the heavily Hispanic area has been heavy. "There were lines — not huge, but lines," she tells us.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that turnout was so heavy in Milwaukee, the city's Election Commission called out reserve poll workers. The paper adds:

"No statewide figures were available, but local election officials offered fairly similar accounts of a heavy turnout in communities large and small, in both Democratic and Republican areas.

"In many places, election officials said turnout was as strong as, or stronger than, it was for the 2010 gubernatorial election. A few even compared it to the 2008 presidential election."

Update at 7:23 p.m. ET. Re-Electing Obama:

The New York Times' exit polling finds that voters tonight would re-elect President Obama, who also bested the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney when voters were asked who would do a better job with the economy.

The questions, however, may not help Barrett. The Times reports:

"Polling in recent weeks has shown Mr. Walker leading even as voters said they preferred keeping Mr. Obama in office.

"That may reflect a queasiness with recall elections. A large majority of the voters who turned out on Tuesday said recall elections are only appropriate when incumbents are accused of official misconduct."

Update at 7:16 p.m. ET. Exit Polls:

CNN is reporting some interesting numbers based on exit polls in Wisconsin. Among them:

-- 32 percent of voters said someone in their household was a union member. 68 percent said they had no connection to a union. That's a higher union turnout than 2010 and 2008, when that number was 26 percent.

-- Voters are unhappy with both parties. 50 percent have an unfavorable view of the GOP and of the Democratic party.

-- Most (88 percent) made up their minds about whom to vote for before May.

Update at 7:12 p.m. ET. Live Results:

You'll find real-time results from Wisconsin below:

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit