SAN ANTONIO — Mitt Romney said Wednesday that conservatives should be emboldened by the failed attempt to recall Wisconsin's Republican governor. He also said the favorable outcome for Republicans could offer a dose of hope for his presidential campaign.
"Yesterday was won by the people of Wisconsin doing the right thing and voting for conservative principles," the likely Republican presidential nominee said to cheers at a fundraising luncheon in Texas.
Romney spoke by phone with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker after he won Tuesday's election, and issued a written statement in support. His comments Wednesday were his first public remarks about the fierce contest that divided Wisconsin and perhaps reset the landscape of the Nov. 6 presidential election.
Romney said voters went with their gut, not their party, by casting ballots to keep Walker in office for the remainder of his term.
"Even though they may have been Democrat or independent, they looked at the record of a conservative who cut back on the size of government, who held down taxes, who said we had to reform, in this case public sector unions that asked for too much, and then ... went to the polls," Romney said.
Democrats and labor unions tried to oust Walker, who enacted measures to end bargaining rights for most public workers. Outside groups flooded the state with money — more than $66 million as of May 21 — and ads that set a new record for election spending in Wisconsin.
Republicans and Democrats cautioned against reading too much into the results, but Walker's solid victory served up a warning for President Barack Obama in a state he comfortably carried in 2008 and that Democrats have won in six straight presidential elections.
The results offered Romney a dose of hope, too. For one thing, he will inherit Walker's vigorous political operation.
"It tends to be a blue state in presidential elections. We don't win a lot in Wisconsin. The last time we won Wisconsin was 1984," he said.
Romney also noted that Walker was the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election; just three have been held. Walker defeated Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for the second time in a year and a half.
Romney also suggested the result shows that voters are coming around to conservatives' views.
"I think people recognize we just can't keep going down the same path that we're on. It ends up in calamity," Romney said. "They look at what's happening in Europe. I'm convinced that the American people recognize, or they will by the time the election comes, that we've got a very stark choice, two very different paths."
Romney also participated in a conference call with small-business owners a day after the labor groups came up short in Wisconsin. On the call, Romney said Obama's support for unions had come at the expense of Main Street.
"The president's labor policies ... have hurt small business," Romney told the National Federation of Independent Business, which lobbies for small business' interests.
But at an appearance at insurance giant USAA — his only one of the day that allowed video cameras to film him — Romney was silent on the vote in Wisconsin.
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.