Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker will become the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election, television networks projected on Tuesday, a setback for labor unions and a boost to Republican hopes in November's presidential election.
Major networks projected Walker would be the winner about an hour after the polls closed in Wisconsin in the divisive election that left families at odds and neighbors not speaking to each over Walker's push to curtail collective bargaining by public sector workers.
With 29 percent of the vote counted, Walker led Democratic challenger Tom Barrett 60 percent to 40 percent, according to unofficial returns, although this was expected to narrow.
Turnout was high in closely divided Wisconsin, which helped elect Democrat Barack Obama as president in 2008. The contest has been seen as a barometer of the U.S. political climate going into the presidential election in November.
The recall election led to huge campaign spending in the Midwestern Rust Belt state, with some estimates that more than $60 million was raised.
Roberta Komor, 53, of the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, said she had voted for Barrett when he ran in 2010, but this time voted for Walker.
The law firm secretary said that in today's hard times, unions "need to learn about shared sacrifice" when workers in the private sector have seen their benefits or wages cut.
"They have had everything handed to them on a platter," Komor said. "They need to be on a par with the rest of us."
Many voters seemed relieved the election had finally come, and voiced disgust with the recall process.
"There are too many recall elections that have been going on in the state and it needs to be stopped," said Carolyn Gral, 51, a Walker supporter and homemaker who is looking for a job.
Wisconsin held nine recall elections for state senators last year after the union law was passed, setting a U.S. record.
This was just the third recall election of a governor in U.S. history and it follows weeks of vociferous protests by demonstrators who occupied the state Capitol in Madison as Walker and fellow Republican lawmakers pushed through the union curbs in March 2011.
The law forced most state workers, including teachers, to pay more for health insurance and pensions, limited their pay raises, made payment of union dues voluntary and forced unions to be recertified every year.
Democrats and unions gathered nearly 1 million signatures to force the recall election. Politicians across the nation are watching the outcome closely.
"It has implications for the presidential race and national politics. Wisconsin could be a swing state," said Steven Schier, political analyst at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
Walker had led Barrett narrowly in most opinion polls leading up to the balloting, with very few voters undecided, so each side has mounted intense get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Opponents of the union curbs charge Walker and fellow Republican lawmakers undercut workers' rights.
CNN projected that Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch also would survive recall. She also was on the recall ballot along with three Republican state senators. A fourth senator targeted for recall resigned, and a candidate from each party is vying for her empty seat.
All four of the Republican candidates in the state senate elections were leading their races. If they win, Walker would keep majority control of both chambers of the state legislature.
In 2008, Obama won Wisconsin by 14 percentage points over Republican John McCain. Two years later, Republicans roared back, electing Walker to replace the outgoing Democratic governor, defeating veteran Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and taking over both houses of the state legislature.
Even Obama's campaign organization conceded on Tuesday that Wisconsin could go either way in November, giving Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney hope of winning a state that has not voted Republican since the 1984 presidential election.
The only two previous recall efforts against sitting governors that succeeded were Lynn Frazier in North Dakota in 1921 and Gray Davis in California in 2003.