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How Walker Held On To His Job In Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker greets supporters at a rally Tuesday in Waukesha, Wis., after weathering a recall challenge.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker greets supporters at a rally Tuesday in Waukesha, Wis., after weathering a recall challenge.

Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall attempt in Wisconsin on Tuesday by doing what he had to do: turning out huge majorities in the Republican enclaves of the state — especially in its eastern half near Lake Michigan.

In the end, Walker wound up with about 53 percent of the vote, about 1 percentage point better than he had in winning the governorship the first time in November 2010.

Turnout was nothing short of phenomenal for a special election. Nearly 2.5 million people voted, which would have been 75 percent of the registered voters as of last summer (before recent voter sign-up drives). That is comparable to, or possibly better than, the turnout in Wisconsin in the 2008 presidential race, which was one of the highest in the country.

The only time it was close all night was when CNN eagerly posted its exit poll at 9 p.m. EDT, showing the race a dead heat at 50 percent for each candidate. Before the hour was out, however, CNN had adjusted those numbers to 52-48 for Walker, which was close to the final result.

Clearly, the die was cast. Some TV news operations called the race for Walker before the polls had been closed a full hour in Wisconsin.

Looking at the maps for this vote and the 2010 vote was very nearly a case of deja vu. Walker dominated in the suburbs west and north of the city of Milwaukee and in the Republican counties that climb northward in a column from the Milwaukee exurbs to Lake Winnebago and up the Fox River Valley to Green Bay. In some counties he won 2 to 1; in one even 3 to 1.

The Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, once again recorded a landslide in the city of Milwaukee proper but lost in the inner ring of suburbs that lie within Milwaukee County (one of which, Wauwatosa, is Walker's hometown).

As a result, Barrett's countywide margin was little better than it had been in 2010. So, adding in the lopsided Republican victories in the three suburban counties of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee, Walker once again won the overall Milwaukee metro easily.

It is hard to imagine any mayor of Milwaukee losing the metro area and still winning a statewide vote.

Barrett did enjoy a big margin of victory in the state's second most populous county, Dane, where the state capital and main campus of the University of Wisconsin are located. But his more than 97,000-vote bulge in Dane was not enough to offset the disappointments elsewhere. In Portage County in the center of the state, home to the city of Stevens Point and a bright spot for him in 2010, the margin was close.

No one had ever thought Barrett could match the wildfire that swept Wisconsin in 2008 for candidate Barack Obama. In that vote, the Democratic nominee for president carried all but 13 of the 72 counties. Even traditional GOP strongholds like Winnebago, Outagamie and Shawano counties fell to Obama, who carried the state by 14 points.

Rather, the Barrett hope was to approximate the showing of the last Democrat who won the governorship, Jim Doyle, in 2006. Doyle won the state that year with almost exactly the same percentage that Walker won by four years later.

Doyle piled up a 40-point advantage in Dane (his home ground) but also managed to carry the four-county Milwaukee metro area. He had that winning margin in the Milwaukee metro in part because his opponent, Mark Green, did not excite nearly as much GOP fervor in these suburban areas as Walker would in 2010 and 2012.

In addition, and crucially, Doyle carried a wide swath of swing counties such as Kenosha, Rock, La Crosse, Trempealeau, Eau Claire and many others near the Illinois and Minnesota state lines. Most of these counties flipped to Walker in 2010 and stayed with him on Tuesday.

Doyle even managed to squeak victories in Winnebago and Outagamie counties, presaging Obama's success there. But Walker came roaring back in these precincts in 2010 and carried them handily Tuesday.

Doyle's was a classic winning pattern for Democrats in statewide races in Wisconsin but one that works only when the candidate matchup and the electoral mood are right. In this instance, neither the matchup nor the mood was helpful to recall advocates.

Barrett and Walker shared much of the Milwaukee area base. The pairing seemed like a rerun of an election held just 19 months ago, which it was. And Barrett was not the candidate of passion for Democrats this spring that Walker has become for conservatives — both in the state and beyond.

Beyond that, the general political climate of this spring has swung perceptibly toward the Republicans, as the GOP's contentious presidential contests have ended and the national economy has shown weakness.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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