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Bitter Wisconsin recall race in voters’ hands

MILWAUKEE — Narrowly divided Wisconsin voters were going to the polls Tuesday to decide whether controversial first-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker should be recalled. He is only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall vote.

Walker faces a rematch with Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom he beat in 2010 by 5 percentage points.

At an elementary school in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa where he cast his ballot not long after polls opened at 7 a.m., Walker said voting day almost came as a relief.

“I think most people are just happy to have the election over,” he said. “I think most voters of the state want to have all the attack ads off. They want to have their TVs back. They want to have their lives back.”

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Barrett meanwhile applauded the voters for turning out in force — and for being prepared to wait a while to cast their ballots.

“Obviously the lines are very, very long which we take as a very encouraging sign. People are engaged in this,” he said. “We’ve noted over the last 96 hours is around the state the energy has just been building and building and building.”

Turnout is key. Polls indicate there are few undecided voters; if the tally is close, swing counties in the western part of the state could decide the outcome.

At 7 a.m., a poll worker at a Southern Wisconsin elementary school cried, “Hear ye, hear ye, the polls are now open,” kicking off voting.

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Voting preferences were mixed among the first voters, a line of 50 or so people queued at the gymnasium door of Janesville’s Washington Elementary School. Near universal was relief that the day of the recall election had arrived, along with a sense that the state’s voters have had to live with a nasty political climate that was exceptional in the state’s recent history.

“I just got into it the other night with my best friend’s husband,” said a woman who gave her name only as Colleen M., one of several who declined to fully identify herself while discussing politics.

Barring the very real possibility of a photo finish, the state should know by the end of the evening whether Walker will be allowed to serve out the remainder of the term to which he was elected in 2010 or be replaced by Barrett.

It is an election fraught with implications for Wisconsin, where Walker’s tea party-inspired brand of budget slashing, union bashing and conservative social activism energized many on the right but also fed a backlash that netted more than 900,000 signatures on a recall petition drive.

Some also think the results in this traditionally purple state could be a harbinger of the national political mood heading into the November presidential election.

Late polls pointed to a tightening race that could turn on the effectiveness of armies of grassroots volunteers enlisted from both parties.

The Government Accountability Board, Wisconsin’s official election agency, has predicted a turnout of about 65%, approaching the record 69% recorded in the 2008 presidential election when Wisconsin went heavily for Barack Obama. Two years later, the state tacked more conservative and elected Walker governor.

As of Monday, the election panel said more than 185,000 absentee ballots had been cast statewide. 

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Walker and Barrett aren’t alone on the recall ballot. Walker’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, a former Milwaukee television news reporter and anchor, is being challenged by Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, head of the state firefighters union.

In addition, four Republican state senators are facing recall challenges, and the loss of just one of those seats would transfer control of the state Senate to Democrats. In theory that could restrain Walker should he retain office, but the Legislature is out of session and not scheduled to meet again until after the November elections, when Republicans would have another shot at regaining power.

The recall has dominated Wisconsin politics this year, but its roots go back to the earliest days of the Walker administration when he unveiled an austere budget that demanded big sacrifice from public workers. They agreed to pick up a big share of their pension and health insurance costs, but ferociously balked as Walker and Republicans who controlled the Legislature also moved to strip away collective bargaining rights.

Walker said that was needed to give local governments like school boards the flexibility to streamline budgets, a power that would help soften the effect of big school aid cuts he also championed.  Unions saw a more sinister motive, arguing that Walker moved at the behest of conservative groups seeking to diminish a significant source of campaign support and cash for Democrats.

Those battle lines grew even sharper as Walker and Republican lawmakers approved tax breaks for business while paring back social safety net programs. Walker claimed it was necessary to combat a budget deficit while setting the stage for widespread job growth and prosperity by making Wisconsin more business-friendly.

To date, at least, the results have been questionable, feeding an argument over Walker’s job creation record that has played a significant role in the recall campaign.

Barrett and fellow Democrats have highlighted federal jobs data calling out Wisconsin for negative job growth and the worst jobs record in the nation since Walker took office. To blunt that line, Walker recently began trumpeting a less commonly referred to data set that appears to show modest job growth under his tenure.

As such, it was not uncommon in the campaign to see back-to-back TV ads from Walker and Barrett, one hailing the improving jobs climate and the other stressing how bad it has been.

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It’s a safe bet that voters have seen far more of Walker’s ads than Barrett’s. As the recall petition drive got underway late last year, Walker predicted that the effort to prematurely oust him would be financed by an avalanche of money from big unions and liberals across the country.

But any fundraising avalanche has been heavily tilted in his favor. Records show a whopping $63 million spent so far on the recall by the campaigns as well as outside political and interest groups — by far the bulk of it to support Walker.

In 2010, Walker raised $11 million to win the governor’s race but this time around he has raked in $31 million in donations to his campaign alone. The comparable take for Barrett is just under $4 million.

While the funding imbalance has been an issue in the campaign, the final days have also seen each candidate hit at the competence and integrity of the other.

Barrett has underscored a growing criminal investigation into former Walker aides from his days as Milwaukee County Executive. Walker has highlighted recent media reports that Milwaukee police misreported and downplayed violent crime data, blunting a Barrett claim that serious crime has dropped under his watch.

Walker has shifted $160,000 in campaign cash to a criminal defense fund but says he is not a target of the probe, which centers on contract manipulation and improper politicking involving top aides in his old office. As for Barrett, the mayor blames the crime statistics problem on clerical errors.

bsecter@tribune.com


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