MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin's Scott Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election on Tuesday in a decisive victory that dealt a blow to the labor movement and raised Republican hopes of defeating President Barack Obama in the November election.
Unions and liberal activists forced the recall election over a law curbing collective bargaining powers for public sector workers passed soon after Walker took office in 2011.
With nearly all of the votes counted, Republican Walker won by 8 percentage points over Democratic challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a bigger victory for the governor over the same challenger than two years ago.
Republicans around the country were elated by the result in a state that President Obama won by 14 percentage points in 2008.
Obama's presumed Republican opponent in November, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, called Walker to congratulate him, an aide to Romney said. Romney had called Walker a "hero" when he visited Wisconsin earlier this year.
"A win like this shows Wisconsin may be a redder (more Republican) state in 2012 and could be bad news for Obama," said Thad Kousser, an associate politics professor at the University of California San Diego.
Even Obama's campaign organization conceded on Tuesday that Wisconsin could be competitive in November. No Republican has won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Walker's win may also embolden Republican governors in other states to take on labor unions, analysts said.
"The unions tried to take a stand here and when you stake everything on one election and lose, politicians around the country will not be afraid to take on the unions," Kousser said.
The victory also branded Walker as a rising Republican star. While he has ruled out serving as Romney's vice presidential nominee, he may be a future national candidate.
Walker struck a conciliatory tone in his victory speech, saying he wanted to try to bring the divided state together.
"Early in 2011, I rushed in to try to fix things before I talked about them. Because you see for years, too many politicians ... talked about things but never fixed them," Walker said to a crowd of roaring supporters.
The election in politically divided Wisconsin has been seen as a barometer of the U.S. political climate going into November's presidential election.
The outcome is the latest evidence of a growing partisan climate in American politics that values confrontation over compromise and has led to gridlock in Washington.
It also suggests that some voters will support a politician who seeks to balance the government budget by cutting spending and reducing pensions and benefits for government workers rather than raising taxes.
Some voters in Wisconsin said it was only fair that union workers pay more pensions and health insurance when most private sector workers have no pensions at all.
Kent Redfield, a political analyst at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the outcome could demoralize Democrats and labor unions. "That could have an effect on turnout in the fall," he said.
Ahead of the recall election, organized labor and conservatives mounted intense get-out-the-vote drives. Grassroots activists in the conservative Tea Party played a major role in those efforts on the right.
"This is a huge win for the Tea Party," said Matt Batzel, Wisconsin state director of national conservative group American Majority Action, which worked with local activists. "Time after time they have answered the call to defend Scott Walker," he said of the group that seeks deep cuts in U.S. government spending.
Voter turnout was high in the state where families were at odds and neighbors were not speaking to each over Walker's push to curtail collective bargaining by public sector workers.
The recall election led to huge campaign spending in the Midwestern Rust Belt state, with some estimates that more than $60 million was raised. So-called Super PACs, the independent groups that are pouring money into the U.S. presidential campaign, were a major force in Wisconsin.
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.
Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California Berkeley, cautioned that the Wisconsin result did not mean there would be a wholesale assault on unions nationwide.
"This is clearly a victory for Walker, but it's been a very costly and disruptive victory," he said. "Some legislators (in other states) will try to go down the same path but they may find it very expensive to do so."
Despite the victory, Walker has not emerged completely unscathed. He still faces an investigation into alleged corruption during his time as Milwaukee County executive before he became governor.
Walker opponents also forced recall elections for Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators who had voted for the labor union restrictions.
Kleefisch and three of the four Senate Republicans were victorious. In the fourth race, the Democrat was ahead by about 800 votes with all of the results counted, but the Republican had not conceded.
If the Democrat is certified the winner, Walker would face a Democratic majority in the state Senate, which could frustrate his agenda in the future.
The only two previous recall efforts against sitting governors were Lynn Frazier in North Dakota in 1921 and Gray Davis in California in 2003. Both of those governors lost.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and James Kelleher in Madison; Editing by Andrew Stern, Greg McCune, Vicki Allen and Lisa Shumaker)