Wisconsin recall battle finally goes to voters
MADISON, Wis.—The battle over Gov. Scott Walker's agenda has attracted millions of dollars from out of state, campaign volunteers from across the country and months of concentrated attention from the two major political parties.
But on Tuesday, the only voices that matter will be those of Wisconsin voters deciding whether to keep Walker or fire him and hand his job to the Milwaukee mayor. After more than a year in the national spotlight, both sides are preparing for a razor-thin margin.
Polls show Walker, a Republican just 17 months into his term, with a small lead over Democrat Tom Barrett.
"Now it's our turn to speak," an exuberant Barrett told campaign workers Monday in Portage. "We the people of the state of Wisconsin are going to reclaim our future."
During Monday's first campaign stop, Walker said he expects a close race, too, and he's focused on turning out voters who supported his efforts to take on public-employee unions.
"We want to move on and move forward," Walker said at a plastics plant near Madison. He was joined by his wife, Tonette, who wore a button that read "Luv My Gov."
Walker planned other campaign stops at a brewery in Stevens Point and a distillery in Green Bay before wrapping up with a nighttime rally in Milwaukee.
Barrett was spending most of Monday in western and northern Wisconsin before ending his day with a rally at a United Auto Workers union hall in Kenosha.
Walker is only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall vote. The other two lost, most recently California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Wisconsin's recall election is a rematch of the 2010 governor's race in which Walker defeated Barrett by 5 percentage points.
Anger over Walker and his conservative agenda began building almost as soon as he took office in January 2011. Just a month into his term, Walker took the state by surprise with a proposal to effectively end collective bargaining rights for most state workers -- a measure he said was needed to ease budget problems. The recall idea emerged soon thereafter.
But the recall petition drive couldn't officially start until November, months after Walker signed the union changes into law. Organizers hit the streets a week before Thanksgiving and spent two months gathering more than 900,000 signatures -- about 360,000 more than were needed to trigger the election.
Retired teacher Jan Stebbins cast her ballot early for Barrett, just as she did two years ago. She said she's been offended by Walker, not by what he's done but "how he's done it."
Stebbins can't stand the division that's emerged in the past two years.
By Wednesday morning, she hopes the state "gets back to a little bit more unity," she said. "I don't know what will happen."
Todd Schober, a financial planner from Racine, voted for Walker in 2010 and plans to do so again on Tuesday.
"When is this going to end?" he asked after shaking his head and sighing. "I'm just going to be so glad when it's all over."
Walker, the 44-year-old son of a minister, has remained unflappable throughout the campaign just as he was during the massive protests that raged at the Statehouse for weeks as lawmakers debated his proposal.
Along the way, he's become a star among Republicans and the most successful fundraiser in Wisconsin politics, collecting at least $31 million from around the country since taking office. That obliterated his fundraising record of $11 million from 2010.
About $63 million has been spent on the race so far, including $16 million from conservative groups such as the Republican Governors Association, Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association.
Democratic groups -- including those funded by unions, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee -- have poured in about $14 million, based on a tally from the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The majority of Walker's donations have come from people outside Wisconsin. Most of Barrett's $4.2 million came from inside the state.
The race has broad implications for national labor unions. It's also seen as a proxy fight for the presidential election, especially given the importance of Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes.
President Barack Obama has kept his distance, just as he did during the unrest last year. Other prominent Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, campaigned for Barrett in the week leading up to the vote.
White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked during a briefing Monday why Obama wasn't campaigning for Barrett.
"The president supports him, stands by him," Carney said, adding that Obama hopes Barrett prevails.
The president himself took to the social media micro-blogging site Twitter late Monday to send much the same message.
"It's Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow," Obama tweeted, "and I'm standing by Tom Barrett. He'd make an outstanding governor. -bo"
Walker enlisted the support of several prominent national Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a self-proclaimed "union-buster."
Walker's lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and three Republican state senators also face recall votes Tuesday. And voters will fill a fourth state Senate seat after the Republican incumbent resigned rather than face the recall.
A Marquette University Law School poll released last week showed Walker with a narrow 7-percentage point lead over Barrett, 52 percent to 45 percent. The poll's margin of error was 4.1 percentage points. In the same poll two weeks earlier, Walker held a 6-point lead, 50 percent to 44 percent.
The poll also showed the deep division in Wisconsin, where 39 percent of respondents said they liked the job Walker has done and 38 percent said they did not like it. Twenty-one percent said they like what he's done, just not how he did it.
In the days leading up to the election, they expressed a mixture of anticipation and fatigue with the political turmoil.
In the working-class city of Janesville, signs on both sides of the election were scattered across the community, some just a few feet apart.
Retired businessman Dave Flury plans to support Walker. And he's worried about what will happen if Barrett wins.
"If Walker loses, shouldn't Republicans turn right around and recall Barrett?" Flury asked.
For months, voters have been inundated with telephone calls, campaign mail and television advertising. Barrett supporter John Oehrke is ready for all of it to end.
"It doesn't really matter who wins I guess," Oehrke said. "It's all crazy."
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond in Fitchburg, Dinesh Ramde in Racine and Brian Bakst in Janesville contributed to this report.