Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall challenge Tuesday, winning both the right to finish his term and a voter endorsement of his strategy to curb state spending, which included an explosive measure that eliminated union rights for most public workers.
The rising Republican star becomes the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt with his defeat of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the union leaders who rallied for months against his agenda.
Barrett conceded. He addressed supporters in Milwaukee and thanked them for their dedication to his campaign and to the petitions that triggered the recall.
Barrett said Wisconsin is deeply divided, and it's up to both Republicans and Democrats to listen to each another. He said he hopes both sides will come together.
Walker says he wants lawmakers to meet next week over burgers and bratwurst to talk about ways to bridge the political divide.
With nearly 80 percent of precincts reporting, Walker had 55 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for Barrett, according to returns tabulated by the Associated Press.
Democrats and organized labor spent millions on the effort to oust Walker but found themselves hopelessly outspent by Republicans from across the country who donated record-setting sums to Walker. Republicans hope that the victory carries over into November and that their get-out-the-vote effort can help Mitt Romney become the first GOP presidential nominee to carry the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The recall was a rematch of the 2010 governor's race. Throughout the campaign, Walker maintained that his policies set the state on the right economic track. Defeat, he said, would keep other politicians from undertaking such bold moves in the future.
"We're headed in the right direction," he said many times. "We're turning things around. We're moving Wisconsin forward."
Barrett repeatedly accused Walker of neglecting the needs of the state in the interests of furthering his own political career by making Wisconsin "the tea party capital of the country." He said Walker had instigated a political civil war in Wisconsin that could be quelled only by a change in leadership.
"I will end this civil war," Barrett promised in a debate. "That is something the people of this state want."
Walker ascended into the national spotlight last year when he surprised the state and 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.
Democrats and labor leaders saw it as a political tactic designed to gut the power of his political opposition. State Senate Democrats left Wisconsin for three weeks in a sort of filibuster, as tens of thousands of teachers, state workers and others rallied at the Capitol to protest Walker's plan.
But the tea party-supported fiscal conservative remained steadfast: Walker believed that his plan would help him control the state budget and that his opponents could not stop Republicans who control the State Legislature from approving his plan.
Walker went on to sign into law several other measures that fueled calls for a recall, including repealing a law giving discrimination victims more ways to sue for damages, making deep cuts to public schools and higher education, and requiring 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 as well as signs supporting the 44-year-old son of a minister dotted the state's landscape all spring at a time normally devoid of political contests.
Turnout was strong across the state, with few problems reported as some voters waited in line to cast their ballots.
More than $66 million was spent on the race as of May 21, making it easily the most expensive in Wisconsin history.