Led by a mild-mannered former high school principal with a habit of exclaiming “Holy mackerel,” Wisconsin Democrats achieved what seemed, for years, to be impossible. They defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
But Walker isn't giving up just yet.
State schools superintendent Tony Evers defeated Walker by about 30,000 votes as of early Wednesday morning, likely depriving Walker, 51, of the chance to be the second Wisconsin governor elected to a third four-year term.
After hours spent locked in a dead heat, Evers took the stage at about 1:30 a.m. with his running mate, former state Rep. Mandela Barnes, by his side. The two thanked Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch for their service to the state and celebrated their win as REO Speedwagon's "Roll With the Changes" played at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Madison.
"We cannot fix all our problems with any single person or any election vote," Evers told a crowd of hundreds that had waited for hours, glued to phones and TV screens as results rolled in. "The real work starts tomorrow … It's time for a change. The voters of Wisconsin spoke and they agree. A change is coming, Wisconsin."
Walker has not conceded.
"We need the official canvass and for military ballots to be counted before any decision can be made," said Walker senior adviser Brian Reisinger in a statement. "Thousands of ballots were damaged and had to be recreated. Until there is a comparison of the original ballots to the recreated ballots, there is no way to judge their validity."
A recount can only be called if Walker is found to have come within 1 percent of Evers' vote total, which could happen if county canvassing counts result in larger totals for Walker. The candidate requesting the recount must pay for the recount if the margin is above 0.25 percent. Walker signed a law, passed by the Republican Legislature last year, with the newly tightened recount thresholds. The measure was introduced after Green Party candidate Jill Stein requested a state recount after the 2016 presidential election.
Just before 1 a.m., Kleefisch took the stage at the Ingleside Hotel in Pewaukee and warned supporters to expect a prolonged recount that "the other side will surely seek."
"The fight is not over," she said. "We are preparing for the reality of a recount."
She thanked those gathered for their support and said it was still needed "like we've never seen before," calling on them to donate resources and time.
"Now Wisconsin is working and we can't afford to go back, so we need all of our supporters of reform, all of those supporters of the bright future of this state to join us in stepping up and once again answering the call," she said.
The Democratic victory marks the fourth statewide election win since 2009 for Evers, 67, who was previously elected to three consecutive terms as state Superintendent of Public Instruction. With Evers’ election, Barnes, 31, will become Wisconsin’s first black lieutenant governor.
"They said this day would never come, but we all knew it was time for a change in Wisconsin," Barnes told the crowd. "Divide and conquer has never worked for our state and it never will work for our state."
Evers and Barnes ran on promises to expand access to affordable health care, invest in public schools and fund roads projects. The campaign centered on the argument that, after eight years under Walker’s leadership, it was “time for a change.”
Speaking from the Orpheum stage, Evers said he was proud to have run a positive campaign focused on "better schools, better roads, more affordable health care that includes protections for pre-existing conditions.
"I will be focused on solving problems, not picking political fights, I will never make promises I cannot keep and I will always work for you," Evers pledged.
Walker’s campaign was built on the argument that, after two terms focused on bringing jobs to Wisconsin and developing the state’s workforce, there was “more work to be done” under Republican leadership. Walker had said that, if elected, his third term would be his last. He promised to continue to hold down taxes, make efforts to attract millennials and retain retirees and strengthen the state’s workforce.
Walker warned Republicans for months that he would need their support to emerge victorious from his toughest election yet.
Walker was first elected in 2010, then re-elected to a second term in 2014 after surviving a 2012 recall attempt. As he made the case for his re-election, he argued that the policies pursued during his tenure have lowered the state's unemployment rate, brought down taxes and allowed for significant investments in education.
Asked in a recent interview how he would like to be viewed as a governor, Walker said “transformational.”
Answering the same question, Evers said he wants to be a governor who unites people.
When he launched his campaign in August 2017, Evers said Walker had failed to adequately invest in public education at every level, failed to strengthen the middle class and engaged in divide-and-conquer style politics throughout his time in office.
Evers has said his first act as governor will be to order the state's attorney general to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking to undo the Affordable Care Act. The move is a component of his pledge to preserve insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and to expand access to affordable health care and prescription drugs. Evers has also pledged to accept the federal Medicaid expansion, which Walker rejected.
Before he was elected to head the state Department of Public Instruction, Evers served for eight years as deputy superintendent of schools. He grew up in Plymouth, and worked as a science teacher, high school principal and district superintendent in Baraboo, Tomah, Oakfield and Verona. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Kathy. They have three children and nine grandchildren.
Katelyn Ferral contributed to this report.