Scott Walker bests Democrat Mary Burke in Wisconsin's tight governor's race

WEST ALLIS, Wisc. -- Scott Walker emerged victorious from a bruising reelection fight Tuesday, when he defeated Democratic challenger Mary Burke, NBC News projected.

Walker secured 58% of the vote on Tuesday, compared to Burke who raked in 41% of the vote with 97% of votes counted, according to NBC News.

Walker’s victory, his third in four years, was closer than his races in 2010 or 2012, but it was enough to win him four more years. The victory will also keep his name in conversations about potential 2016 contenders. The tight race with Burke stole some of the momentum Walker had built, but Tuesday night's win should reignite that speculation.

"I hope to earn your support and respect over the next four years," Walker said in his victory speech. And in the closest he came to an explicit nod to 2016 speculation, Walker said he is "excited for the next four years."

But Walker didn't shy away from broad statements about America and conservative values Tuesday night. "In America, you can do and be anything you want," her said. "That's right, in America, opportunity is equal, but the outcome is up to you."

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A crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered at the Wisconsin State Fair Pavilion to celebrate Walker's victory, where they sipped Miller beer and agitated to watch election returns on Fox News. As Democrat Mary Burke delivered her concession speech, the crowd shouted and chanted, booing her when she spoke of reproductive rights, minimum wage protests, and workers' rights.

When Walker thanked and praised Burke for her "great love for her state," cheers went up.

Shortly after he took office, Walker predicted he would grow the state by 250,000 new jobs – and while he didn’t quite meet that goal, most of those who supported him Tuesday said that economic conditions in Wisconsin are better today than four years ago. The NBC News exit poll showed that nearly half – 46% -- of Wisconsin voters said the state’s economic conditions are better today than four years ago. Another 32% said they are worse, and 21% said they are about the same. Among those who said the economy in Wisconsin is better, 80% cast a vote for Walker.

And for Walker to win Tuesday he had to hold onto voters in the middle, after having staked out a conservative agenda over the last four years.  And the exit polls show that while his support among moderates dropped from 55% in 2010 to 46% Tuesday, Walker was able to hold onto a 53% majority of independents. 

Wisconsin voters were evenly divided on their opinion of how Gov. Walker handled implementation of the Affordable Care Act – 48% approved and 49% disapproved – but that may actually bolster his chances among the Republican base should he decide to seek his party’s nomination for president. 

Walker began his day by voting in his hometown of Wauwautosa with his wife Tonette and sons Matt and Alex, while Burke made another swing through the state to speak to volunteers and encourage canvassers. A photo circulating Tuesday of Walker and Burke taken at the Green Bay airport was a contrast from the tone the race had taken in recent days, as conservatives have attacked Burke's credentials from her days working for Trek Bicycle.

One young woman beamed as she fed her ballot into the machine, and as she walked outside to meet her ride, she clutched a piece of mail and a pair of lime green earbuds.

While the race has garnered less attention than some of the close Senate races in states like Kentucky and New Hampshire, the Wisconsin governor’s race could have lasting implications for both Republican party members and residents of Wisconsin.

Walker has dodged questions about any 2016 aspirations, but during this campaign he was quieter about some of his more extreme social positions than he was in 2010 or 2012,  which could be an attempt to appeal to  voters outside his base. Walker opposed abortion even in the case of rape or incest, and he wants to drug test adults who apply for public assistance. He also opposed same-sex marriage. Wisconsin’s challenge to judicial rulings that overturned the ban failed in October.

Walker has also declined to say whether he would support legislation that would make Wisconsin a “right to work” state or enact stricter abortion laws. Before he was elected in 2010, Walker said little about his plans to dismantle labor rights. He has said he would not push for it himself, though if his allies in the Republican-controlled legislature brought it up, supporting things like “right to work” would burnish his credentials with far-right national primary voters once he wins again. "Right to work" laws ban unions from automatically deducting representation fees from employees' paychecks.

Walker and Burke spent much of the year virtually tied in state polls, and while one poll released the Wednesday before the election showed Walker pulling away from Burke among likely voters at 50 to 43, the race has remained close. Both campaigns spent the last week wooing undecided voters in the more purple, western part of the state while trying to boost turnout through early voting and massive voter outreach efforts.

Canvassers for Wisconsin Jobs Now, an advocacy group trying to raise the minimum wage in Wisconsin, knocked on 175,000 from July through election day, and 20 people volunteered to give rides to the polls to those who needed them.

According to one Janesville poll watcher, GOP operatives were on the lookout for groups of Illinois residents arriving to cast ballots illegally. When a federal judge ruled that Wisconsin’s voter ID law – which supporters say will prevent voter fraud - was unconstitutional, he wrote, “virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin.”

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Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board reported that 289,615 people cast ballots during the state's early voting period, and that more than 216,000 of those were cast in person. Kevin J. Kennedy, the state’s top election official, also pointed out that these results are not complete.

Despite cuts signed into law by Walker that ended early voting on nights and weekends, more people voted early than in the recall election in 2012.

For Celia Robinson, a 94-year-old who has lived in the same home for 54 years, changes to polling locations and other requirements didn’t stop her from voting early Tuesday with her son, no matter how much they may seem like relics of the Jim Crow era.

Overall, 2.5 million people were expected to cast ballots in this election, 56.5% of the voting age population. Nearly 58% of voters turned out for the 2012 recall election, which Walker won with a comfortable margin. More than 70% of voters voted in the 2012 presidential election, when Obama carried the state by 6.7 points.