The brawl over whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker is a taut preview of what's coming to campaigns across America this year.
Wisconsin voters will decide June 5 whether to remove the Republican from office and replace him with Democrat Thomas Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. Under fire for cutting budgets at the expense of public employees, Walker would be only the third governor in U.S. history yanked from office in a recall election. Walker has an edge, but the race is close.
The campaign will mean more than who governs Wisconsin. It's a test case of the larger clashes in American politics driving elections for the presidency and control of Congress, highlighting divisions over the costs of government. Backed by money pouring in from out of state, the race is raising questions that will echo across the country.
Can a tough-minded conservative Republican force cutbacks in government at the risk of angering public employees unions and still win a swing state such as Wisconsin? Will voters think he's doing the best he can in a tough time? Or will they rise in a grassroots backlash against a well-financed Republican effort?
The answers could be telling, given Wisconsin's recent political history. The state has been a bellwether in recent years. It elected a Democratic governor and U.S. senator by wide margins in 2006 – part of a nationwide turn to the Democrats at the end of the George W. Bush years. It went easily for President Barack Obama in 2008, a key part of his win. And in 2010, voters elected a conservative Republican governor and U.S. senator, part of the Republican tide.
The key to winning here – as in other close races – will depend largely on undecided voters and turnout. While economic worry is commonplace, so is uncertainty that changing leaders will help.
Carey Peck, who just graduated with a master's degree and is unable to find a job, offered a typical lament.
"I don't agree with the recall. It should be reserved for someone who's committed big offenses," he said at a coffee shop in this Milwaukee suburb. "I don't agree with what Walker has done, but I don't think he's done anything to warrant a recall."
The boyish-looking Walker is fighting hard to keep his job, all over television calmly saying jobs have been created on his watch. His supporters work the phones, reminding voters that despite all the anger over Walker's policies, Wisconsin hasn't plunged into an economic ditch.
His campaign is fueled largely by out-of-state money. He's collected $13.87 million in individual contributions from out-of-state sources, and $9.18 million from in-state backers. Barrett, who started later, has collected $102,998 from out-of-state individuals and $712,551 from in-state contributors, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-partisan group.
"Conservatives around the country see Walker as a symbol of the kind of change they want," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School poll.
If Walker has the advantage in money, Barrett has the unions to help organize.
A coalition of unions, minorities and progressive groups have been sending vans through Milwaukee neighborhoods to round up voters since early voting began May 21. In Madison, about three dozen people gather every day at noon for an hour to sing traditional protest songs like "We Shall Overcome" in the Capitol Rotunda.
Walker shot to national attention last year during a bitter standoff over his bid to impose significant limits on collective bargaining for most public employees. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled to Illinois, in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to block the legislation. Anti-Walker protests filled the Capitol and capitol grounds.
Since then, Walker has sounded somewhat contrite, telling interviewers that he probably could have explained more thoroughly that drastic steps were needed to balance the state's budget. Now he maintains he stabilized state finances, which most analysts say is accurate.
Some numbers support him. The state's April unemployment rate was 6.7 percent, down from 7.5 percent a year ago. But the number of people on seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls was down about 6,000 in April to 2.732 million, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Walker's approach resonates in Milwaukee's suburbs. Cutting government spending, people say, motivates people to seek jobs and prods employers to hire. Walker's latest ad charges Barrett would "take Wisconsin back to the failed days of billion-dollar budget deficits, double-digit tax increases, and record job loss."
"I just believe in everything Walker is doing. I'm tired of people getting away with doing nothing," said a vehement Nancy Walker – no relation – a crafts worker from Hartford. "I worked three jobs, raised my children, paid my own health insurance and I don't agree with people who say you owe it to me to help me."
Debbie Rank, a grocery store worker in Waukesha, scoffed at complaints that Walker's cuts would mean more children in classrooms. "We had that when I was in school," she said. "And I've paid my health insurance since the day I started working."
Go into the city of Milwaukee and it's easy to find discouraged voters who want Walker out. He doesn't understand, they say, that they only want help, not handouts.
Greg Renden, a public defender, took a pay cut. He blames Walker for making an already dismal economy worse. "He's abdicated the role of trying to help people in need," said Renden.
Shyquetta McElroy feels the pain in several places. A single mother, with children ages 2 and 5, she works part time as a data entry specialist. She has an associate's degree and would like to get a more advanced degree.
She relies on the state's health care program and uses other programs to help pay for food and for education. Because of cutbacks, she worries that one of her children will no longer qualify for health coverage. Food aid already has been cut.
Walker – and the political system – are making it harder for her to become more self-reliant, she said.
"I don't buy any snacks for the kids now," McElroy said. "I buy basic things."
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