The jet-propelled Republican
Mr Walker defeated his opponent, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee—Wisconsin’s biggest city—by seven points, a wide margin. No governor has survived a recall before, but in a political campaign that has drawn, by the latest accounting, an astonishing $64m in funding—most of it from outside groups—Mr Walker outspent his opponents six or seven times over.
The drive to recall him picked up steam last November, after unions defeated a similarly restrictive collective-bargaining law in a referendum in Ohio. The emboldened unions then turned their attention to Wisconsin, where Mr Walker was looking vulnerable. Over 900,000 Wisconsinites signed a petition demanding that the governor should face a fresh election.
The campaign has been closely watched across the country. For one thing, it will inform other right-wing governors and mayors, struggling to cut their budgets, how far they can hope to get if they reduce the pensions and benefits of public-sector workers. For another, it will show the unions how much power they command.
Yet there is both more and less to Mr Walker’s victory than first appears. It is certainly culturally significant that the first state to allow collective bargaining, the birthplace of the American Progressive movement, has failed to oust the union-busting Mr Walker. And the defeat has inflicted a painful blow on the unions. But this was never going to be a precise answer to the question of whether public-sector unions are overpaid, or to the question of what is fair in times of austerity. And, crucially, Mr Walker had exempted the most powerful public-sector unions, the police and firemen, from his new laws.
The fight in Wisconsin was about fiscal conservatism, jobs and the economy. The governor was able to stand on a platform that included recent cuts to property taxes and a newly healthy state budget. His opponent, meanwhile, had a month to sell the idea that he was Mr Nice to Mr Walker’s Mr Nasty.
Others are looking to Wisconsin for signs of what may happen in the presidential race. Wisconsin was one of several Midwestern states that gave Barack Obama victories in 2008, but then elected Republicans in large numbers in 2010. So far, though, support for Mr Obama remains firm in the state.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that Mr Obama’s failure to campaign in the recall election will harm his base in Wisconsin for the presidential election later this year. That criticism is a little unfair; for one thing, national Democrats never wanted this fight. But what is clear is that the Republican base in Wisconsin is now rocket-propelled. With 4m voter contacts made and Republican field offices set up all round the state, a formidable right-wing grassroots campaign has emerged. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, is now likely to consider Wisconsin worth fighting over.
The huge political expenditure has fuelled a toxic atmosphere in mild-mannered Wisconsin. In one incident, a man in Chippewa Falls was run over by his wife in a tussle over the recall. Another low point was a Walker campaign advertisement that tried to tie his opponent to the death of a two-year-old child.
Mr Walker, now elected twice, has a mandate for more change. But it is not clear he can do much to heal the wounds of the state’s “civil war”. When his deputy boasted on election night, “This is what democracy looks like,” she sent an unintended message: if this is indeed what democracy looks like, it is a worrying omen.