Democrat Tony Evers ousted Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the state’s closest governor’s race in more than half a century, denying the polarizing Republican and one-time presidential candidate a third term and succeeding where his party had failed in three previous attempts, including a 2012 recall.
Walker refused to concede the race early Wednesday, and his campaign alleged that “thousands” of ballots were damaged and may have skewed the count. With the unofficial count substantially complete, Evers led by about 31,000 votes, or 1.16 percentage point, just outside the margin at which a losing candidate may request a recount.
The Walker loss comes after three previous wins — including the 2012 recall — and a narrow President Donald Trump victory in 2016. Trump carried the state by just shy of 23,000 votes.
After a recount in that race, Walker signed a state law allowing future recounts only when the loser is within 1 percentage point of the winner.
Walker’s campaign spokesman Brian Reisinger said Walker wants the allegedly damaged ballots examined. Walker also wants to see the official canvas of the vote and for military ballots to be counted “before any decision can be made,” Reisinger said.
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Counties have until 9 a.m. Tuesday to canvas the vote.
Moments before the race was called for Evers, Walker’s Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch told supporters to brace for a “long, drawn-out recount.” She also said, “We must ensure every valid vote in the state of Wisconsin is counted and we must be gracious no matter the outcome.”
While Walker looked for a way to escape the loss, Democrats exalted. People could be heard screaming and cheering outside the state Capitol shortly after the race was called. Evers, the state superintendent, told exuberant supporters at a Madison theater that he was “confident” in saying, “I’m going to be the next governor of the state of Wisconsin.”
Evers’ victory is a monumental win for Democrats and a steep fall for Walker, who just three years ago was seen as an early front-runner in the GOP primary for president. When Walker dropped out of the presidential race, he focused on rebuilding his low approval ratings in Wisconsin.
Walker had promised if he won that the third term would have been his last.
Evers, 67, a former teacher, cancer survivor and state superintendent since 2009, used his folksy, nondescript personality to his advantage in the campaign, using words like “jeepers” and “holy mackerel” while arguing that voters were tired of divisiveness and yearned for more collegial politics.
While Evers waited for results, he played the card game euchre with his family members — just as he did in August before winning an eight-person primary.
Evers will have to deal with a Legislature controlled by Republicans, making it difficult if not impossible to roll back much of the conservative laws Walker enacted over the past eight years.
It will also be tough for Evers to enact many of his campaign promises — namely scaling back a manufacturing and agriculture tax credit program to pay for an income tax cut.
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Walker, the 51-year-old son of a Baptist preacher, swept into office in 2010, part of a Republican wave that saw the GOP take over control of the state Legislature as well. With Republican partners in the Statehouse, Walker pushed through a law that effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers and most public workers.
Anger over that law led to the failed 2012 recall election. Walker’s stature among conservatives and national profile skyrocketed after the union fight and the passage of a host of Republican priorities, including making Wisconsin a right-to-work state; cutting taxes by $8 billion; implementing a voter ID law; expanding the private school voucher program statewide; freezing tuition at the University of Wisconsin; rejecting federal Medicaid expansion money under the Affordable Care Act; and restricting access to abortion.