Amid applause last week for winning a third term as Milwaukee’s mayor, Democrat Tom Barrett fixed his gaze on the next job -- bouncing out Wisconsin (STOWI1:US) Governor Scott Walker in a June 5 recall.
While Democrats speak as one in opposing Walker, gathering almost 1 million signatures to force a vote, four candidates will compete May 8 for the right to challenge the Republican governor. Only one has won statewide office.
Residents will choose among Kathleen Falk, 60, a former Dane County executive; Secretary of State Doug La Follette, 71; state Senator Kathleen Vinehout, 53; and Barrett, 58. Then, Wisconsin Democrats, who in 2010 lost the governorship, control of the Legislature and the U.S. Senate seat held by Russ Feingold, have four weeks to convert recall signatures to votes.
“The people in this state do not want to be in a state of permanent political civil war,” said Barrett, who was celebrating his April 3 win at an Irish pub where Christmas decorations still hung behind the bar.
“As long as he’s governor, there will be unrest,” said Barrett, who lost to Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial race.
Turmoil has defined Wisconsin for 14 months. After Walker used Republican legislative majorities to restrict collective bargaining for most public employees, protests led to nine recall elections last year. Those laid the foundation for the June votes on ousting Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, 36, and four more state senators, all Republicans.
More than a year of recall battles has drawn national Republican allies to Walker’s side and mobilized labor unions around the country to support his opponents. More than $40 million was spent on last year’s recalls, and some estimates say the next round will cost at least $60 million to $80 million, mostly coming from out-of-state sources.
Democrats yearned for a candidate around whom the party could unite, said Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette University Law School Poll. And that was Feingold, elected three times to the Senate and now pictured on T-shirts inscribed, “This is What a Governor Looks Like.”
Feingold, lecturing at Stanford University, near Palo Alto, California, declined to run. That left the field to the current four, of whom only La Follette has won statewide office.
“The bottom line is, this is not a united party,” Franklin said. “It did not get Russ Feingold and there is a potentially disconcerting division that Democrats would rather not be facing.”
Falk said her party is united.
“I see excited people everywhere I go,” she said in an interview outside her campaign office in Madison, the capital and Dane County seat. “People are dead serious about getting this job done.”
A lawyer backed by the state’s major unions and environmental groups, Falk ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002, and lost the 2006 race for attorney general to Republican J.B. Van Hollen by 8,859 votes out of 2.1 million.
“We are an even-keeled state,” Falk said. “We normally get along.” Walker, she said, “has family members not talking to family members. It’s not how we are in Wisconsin.”
Like many states, Wisconsin is ideologically divided. Dane County, along with Milwaukee County, represents the largest single blocs of Democratic voters. The political views that dominate Madison, a government and university town, are considered anathema in more rural and suburban areas. Barrett’s base is in blue-collar Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.
Walker defeated Barrett in 2010 by 124,638 votes, or 52 percent to 46 percent. Barrett said conditions have changed dramatically since then.
“In 2010, both Russ Feingold and I walked into the Tea Party buzz saw, and now, 15 months later, I think there are a lot of people who have buyer’s remorse,” Barrett said.
A Marquette poll released March 27 showed that in a hypothetical matchup, Walker led Barrett 47 percent to 45 percent. He led Falk by 49 percent to 45 percent.
Vinehout, of Alma, trailed Walker 41 percent to 49 percent, while La Follette was behind 42 percent to 49 percent. The March 22-25 telephone survey of 707 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
“We’re not worried about a lack of enthusiasm June 5,” said Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “I know that many people wished that Russ Feingold had run, but there are many things that people wish for that don’t happen. I don’t believe we squander this opportunity.”
In defending his position, Walker’s central message is that his fiscal overhaul is working, helping the state recover from the longest recession since the Depression. He promised that the state would get 250,000 new nongovernment jobs by the end of his first term.
Although the state’s unemployment rate has declined since Walker, 44, took office, to 6.9 percent in February from 7.6 percent a year earlier, Wisconsin lost 15,500 nonfarm jobs last year from 2010, including both public and nongovernment positions, according to the U.S. Labor Statistics Bureau.
The state ranked sixth-lowest in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index from the 2011 first quarter, when Walker took office, through the fourth quarter, the most recent data available.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported Feb. 9 that the state has a budget deficit of $143.2 million.
Mordecai Lee, a government affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the remaining four weeks in the primary campaign are “totally uncharted political territory.”
He predicted, though, that the party will unite, “no matter how bad the primary gets. They’re more interested in recalling Scott Walker. They’d vote for a yellow dog.”
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