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.
Walker's hefty war chest was bolstered by a quirk in the state's law. Under Wisconsin law, Walker could start raising unlimited funds early last November when a recall committee first registered with the state's accountability board, while Democratic fundraising was split as a hard-fought primary battle unfolded. While Barrett ultimately defeated former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, it was Falk who received the majority of donations from labor unions, the force that spurred the recall in the first place.
In recent weeks a slew of high-profile Republican lawmakers from across the country have flocked to Wisconsin to campaign on Walker's behalf. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell ? the chairman of the Republican Governors Association ? have all visited the Badger State to bolster Walker's chances. Wisconsin's own Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, stumped for Walker, too.
"The Democrats don't have a team of stars around the country," said Burden. "There isn't an equivalent for them of Chris Christie or Bobby Jindal, who are on the circuit stumping for candidates elsewhere. The president is the embodiment of the Democratic Party, whereas Republicans have a field team of presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls who are circulating around."
It wasn't until only days before the election that one of the Democrats' biggest stars - former president Bill Clinton - went to Wisconsin to help the anti-Walker cause, calling the state "America's battleground."
"Cooperation works. Constant conflict is a dead-bang loser and you need to get rid of it," Clinton said at a rally with Barrett on Friday.
Romney -- the biggest Republican star at the moment -- has not campaigned with Walker in the run-up to the recall election, but during a tele-town hall in March, the GOP hopeful voiced support for the embattled governor.
"Gov. Walker is, in my opinion, an excellent governor and I believe that he is right to stand up for the citizens of Wisconsin and to insist that those people who are working in the public sector unions have rights to affect their wages, but that these benefits and retiree benefits have fallen out of line with the capacity of the state to pay them," Romney said. "So I support the governor in his effort to rein in the excesses that have permeated the public sector union and government negotiations over the years."
Burden said the outrage over Walker's treatment of public employee unions had not decreased since the protests that engulfed the state capitol in Madison a little more than a year ago. United Wisconsin needed 540,000 signatures to force the recall, but ultimately turned in roughly 1 million. Burden warned, however, that it would take more than just outrage to oust Walker.
"I don't think it's died down," Burden said. "Those were mostly public-sector union employees: teachers, nurses, firefighters, police and others. The energy is still there, but they just don't seem to have the numbers or the loyalty that the Republican base is showing. There are a lot of Democrats who are kind of lukewarm or just not as jazzed as Republicans, but they aren't the Democrats who were protesting at the capitol a year ago."
According to the Marquette poll, 92 percent of Republicans said they were "absolutely certain to vote" on Tuesday, compared with 77 percent of Democrats.
Judging by one of his latest ads, Walker is taking nothing for granted. On Wednesday he unleashed a brutal attack ad against Barrett, claiming that the Milwaukee mayor did nothing while a 2-year-old was almost beaten to death.
"This 2-year-old spent six days in intensive care after being severely beaten, but Tom Barrett's police department didn't consider it a violent crime," the ad stated. "Tom Barrett claims violent crime is down 15.5 percent, but the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that hundreds of beatings, stabbings and child abuse cases were never even counted. Violent crime in Milwaukee is up, and Tom Barrett isn't telling the truth."
The stakes are high on Tuesday. The state has never recalled a governor in its history, and the passion in Wisconsin runs deep. Earlier this month, an argument over the recall election left one man in the hospital. Jeffrey Radle, a resident of Chippewa Falls, backs Walker, but his estranged wife, Amanda, does not. When she wanted to go to vote for another candidate during the recall election primary, he tried to block her from getting to the polls. She then hit him with her SUV, sending him to the hospital with head, neck and back injuries.
Matthew Jaffe covers the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.