It's the birthday gift Scott Walker wanted for years.
The Republican son of a preacher celebrated his 43rd birthday Tuesday by blazing past his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, to become Wisconsin's next governor.
"I think this topped the year (my wife Tonette) got me a Harley for my birthday!" Walker joked to the cheering crowd at his victory party in Pewaukee, where supporters repeatedly serenaded him with "Happy Birthday."
Walker is the first Milwaukee County executive to be elected to the state's top office. But on Tuesday night, he vowed to be the governor for the entire state — and to make it clear that Wisconsin is again "open for business."
But one of Walker's top campaign promises — his vow to stop the passenger rail line between Milwaukee and Madison — may now be especially hard to keep after Wisconsin and federal officials quietly signed a deal over the weekend to commit the state to spending all $810 million of the federal stimulus cash it received for the project.
He didn't mention the train during his speech, but it was clearly on his supporters' minds. One man held a sign that read, "Train 4 sale," and others were chanting, "No more train, no more train."
Walker's victory over Barrett was a sign that a wave of frustrated Wisconsin voters, tired of the sagging economy and lingering unemployment, moved to back Republicans over Democrats, who have held both houses of the Legislature and the governor's mansion in recent years, and have been the controlling party nationally.
Walker has said he didn't just see anger among voters, that he also saw hope. But he frequently tried to tap into voters' anger, painting a Barrett victory as a third term for Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, only "worse."
The strategy seems to have worked. Barrett trailed in just about every poll in recent months.
Walker, who became Milwaukee County executive in the wake of a pension scandal eight years ago, also won favor with Republican Party leaders four years ago when he bowed out of the governor's race to clear the way for Mark Green to run.
But Green lost to Doyle, and many Republicans saw this time as Walker's turn.
Walker easily beat Mark Neumann, a Nashotah homebuilder and former U.S. representative, in the Republican primary on Sept. 14, and carried that momentum into the general election.
Barrett didn't have a serious primary challenge and seemed to struggle to get widespread enthusiasm behind his campaign.
Barrett, 56, previously served as a state legislator and U.S. representative and has been the mayor of Milwaukee since 2004. He has enjoyed popularity in that job, and became nationally known as the "hero mayor" last year when he was brutally beaten outside State Fair Park after trying to protect a 1-year old girl and her grandmother from an assailant. Barrett suffered serious injuries to his head and face, broken teeth and a shattered hand in the attack.
Shortly after 10:30 p.m., flanked by his wife and four children, Barrett congratulated Walker on his win and vowed to keep fighting to provide good jobs, education and health care to the people of Wisconsin and to residents of Milwaukee, where he continues as mayor. He said he tried to run a campaign in which he gave "straight talk and honest plans to the people of this state." And he vowed to keep fighting for those who are out of work or in poverty.
"The voters have spoken, and I respect the voters in the state of Wisconsin, and I honor their decision," Barrett said.
Walker's party was packed with supporters attracted to his promises of tax cuts and his fiscally conservative "brown bag" themes: Don't spend more than you have; smaller government is better government; people create jobs, not government.
Many voters also warmed to his personable approach, often talking about his modest upbringing in Delavan, the values he learned in a small town as the "son of a preacher man," and telling stories about his wife, Tonette, and sons Matt and Alex.
Critics slammed Walker as being short on substance, describing his "brown bag ideas" as gimmicky talking points that didn't have detailed plans behind them. And supporters of abortion rights, gay rights and embryonic stem cell research called him "too extreme for Wisconsin." Walker opposes abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's health is in danger.
Walker also says the state's Domestic Partner Registry may violate a 2006 constitutional amendment that marriage should be between one man and one woman, and wants to direct stem cell research toward adult cells rather than the more versatile embryonic cells.
Rough night for Dems
Both sides spent heavily in the race. A record-setting $45 million to $50 million was spent, according to Common Cause in Wisconsin, with Walker spending about $11 million and Barrett about $8 million. Common Cause estimated there was as much as $25 million in spending by outside groups, many with undisclosed donors, and an additional $7 million by others such as Neumann.
But voters threw their support behind Republican candidates Tuesday, a stark difference from 2006 when Doyle won re-election and Democrats captured control of the state Senate. And in 2008, President Barack Obama carried the state by 14 points, and Democrats took control of the state Assembly.
Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said there was some good news in the results, citing high turnout among young people on university campuses and blacks in Milwaukee. "The Democratic Party has had a lot of great nights," Tate said. "This just doesn't happen to be one of them."