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Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 a.m.

Wisconsin recall vote raises issues crucial to voters nationwide

By Seattle Times news services

WAUKESHA, Wis. — The brawl over whether to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is a preview of what's coming to campaigns across the nation this year.

Wisconsin voters will decide Tuesday whether to remove the Republican from office and replace him with Democrat Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. Under fire for cutting budgets at the expense of public employees, Walker would be 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 that are driving elections for the presidency and control of Congress, highlighting divisions over the costs of government.

With more than $30 million raised from conservative donors, many of them from other states, and visits from a who's who of high-profile Republican governors (New Jersey's Chris Christie, South Carolina's Nikki Haley, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Virginia's Bob McDonnell), Walker's campaign to survive the recall has the feel, the money and the stakes of a national race.

The state vote is raising questions that will echo nationwide. Can a tough-minded conservative Republican force cuts in government at the risk of angering public-employees unions and 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 grass-roots backlash against the well-financed Republican effort?

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 Obama in 2008, a key part of his win. In 2010, voters elected a conservative Republican governor and U.S. senator, part of the Republican tide.

The key to winning in Wisconsin — 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 recently 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 Waukesha, west of Milwaukee.

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 the anger over his policies, Wisconsin hasn't plunged into an economic ditch.

Walker has been leading in polls released by the Marquette University Law School during the past two weeks. One released Wednesday showed him with a 7-point edge, but that was within the margin of error of 4.1 percentage points either way.

Unique for state

The recall election has been unlike anything seen before in Wisconsin, with nearly $62 million spent by the candidates and outside groups, based on a tally released Thursday by the nonpartisan government-watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Walker was the top spender at $29 million, with Democrats, including Barrett, spending about $4 million.

Outside groups also have spent $21 million and issue-ad groups that don't have to disclose their spending have put in at least $7.5 million, according to the tally.

"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 has 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 such as "We Shall Overcome" in the Capitol Rotunda.

Bitter standoff

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. The Republicans pushed the plan through anyway. Democrats have been looking for payback ever since.

They ousted two GOP state senators in recalls last August and gathered enough signatures on recall petitions this winter to force Walker, the lieutenant governor and three GOP state senators into Tuesday's elections. A fourth Republican state senator resigned rather than defend her seat, which also will be filled Tuesday.

Walker defeated Barrett to win his first term as governor in 2010. Their rematch has evolved into a national referendum on union power.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Janesville Republican, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus appeared at a tea-party rally in Caledonia, just outside Racine, on Saturday and implored hundreds in the crowd to get as many people to the polls as they can Tuesday. They said a Walker win would segue into defeat for Obama in Wisconsin in November.

"This is an election that will send shock waves throughout America," Ryan told the crowd. "It is a momentum-maker or a momentum-breaker."

Failure to explain

Since he was elected, Walker has sounded somewhat contrite, saying 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 nonfarm payrolls was down about 6,000 in April to 2.732 million, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

His approach resonates in Milwaukee's suburbs. Cutting government spending, people say, motivates people to seek jobs and prods employers to hire.

"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 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."

Emotions raw

Go into 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," Renden said.

The splintering that started when Walker cut bargaining rights has seeped into other issues: austere budget choices; a voter-ID law; removal of a law that allowed people to seek punitive and compensatory damages in state court over employment discrimination; and efforts to encourage iron-ore mining.

More than a year after thousands of protesters marched around the state Capitol in Madison, emotions remain raw.

"We don't want the state taken over by the Koch brothers," said Mary Jean Nicholls, a former teacher, referring to Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists who are among Walker's key supporters.

Craig Dedo, a computer consultant and Walker supporter, said the race boiled down to one question: Who runs Wisconsin? "The Democrats and the unions, who are the takers?" he asked, "or the Republicans, the party of the private sector and the people who pay the bills?"

Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The New York Times and The Associated Press.

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