In a battle viewed largely as a barometer for November's showdown between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Wisconsin voters on Tuesday will decide whether to oust Gov. Scott Walker for what Democrats contend is an unacceptable attack on organized labor by the GOP lawmaker.
During the winter of 2011, the Badger State became locked in a standoff as Walker pushed to roll back union rights for many public employees, infuriating labor groups in the state and around the country. While the governor ultimately succeeded in signing a law that stripped most public employees of their collective bargaining rights on pensions and health care, and limited their pay increases, the backlash against Walker set the stage for this week's recall vote.
"It's a statement about what role we think the public sector ought to play," said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There are fundamental differences between the two parties here, and they mimic the debate in Washington. Republicans want to reduce the size of government, and they view the public sector as a hindrance to job growth, while Democrats want to use the public sector to spur job growth, promote fairness and serve as a safety net. We can't do both. Wisconsin is a swing state, and it represents a lot of the diversity we find in the country in general, so for that reason I think the recall here is a symbol of the larger argument going on."
Recent polls show Walker leading his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. A survey of likely voters conducted by Marquette University Law School from May 23-26 showed Walker with a 52 percent to 45 percent advantage over Barrett. But public polling can be unpredictable because of the special nature of the summertime election, and that poll came before the two opponents engaged in a heated debate Thursday night.
Much of Thursday's debate focused not only on the dispute over collective bargaining, but, as in the general election battle between Obama and Romney, on the economic hardships facing many voters.
"We have a plan," said Walker. "It's a plan that's working. It's moving this state forward. That's the choice people have to make."
But Barrett fought back, arguing that Walker's policies are "working for the wealthiest people in the state, but they're not working for the middle class."
Wisconsin is a key swing state in this fall's presidential race, with top Republican officials predicting doom for Obama -- who won the Badger State by nearly 15 percent in 2008 -- if Walker wins the recall, even though the Marquette poll found Obama with 51 percent support among likely voters, compared with 43 percent for Romney.
"One thing is really clear here: If Walker wins on Tuesday, which we are really confident he will, Obama's going to have a much tougher road ahead in Wisconsin this fall," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus told reporters. "Certainly [if] Wisconsin goes red I think it's lights out for Barack Obama."
Republicans appear to have reason for optimism about Walker's chances. In addition to the governor's lead in the polls, Walker has enjoyed a huge fundraising edge and the full support of the national GOP organization. According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, total spending in the race has hit $62 million, and Walker has accounted for almost half of that, compared with around $2.9 million for Barrett.