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Wisconsin voters fiercely, evenly split as recall vote looms

MADISON, Wis. — When Tim Cullen returned to the Wisconsin state Senate after an absence of 24 years, he might have been an ideal bridge between the state’s warring parties.

A former three-term Democratic Senate majority leader, Cullen had left the Legislature in 1987 to become an influential Cabinet secretary under then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican. He won his election in 2010 with significant support from both parties, representing one of the state’s bellwether regions.

In his earlier terms in office, Cullen said recently in an interview, “it wasn’t hard to find a political center around here” in which officials from both parties could maneuver. But now, he said, “there’s no center.”

As Wisconsin hurtles toward a June 5 recall election for its governor — only the third such contest in U.S. history — “there’s no center” has become a refrain from voters and elected officials alike. The state has been buried under the weight of the forces that have reshaped politics nationwide — the influx of ideologically motivated money, the sharpened divide between the parties, the intolerance of heterodox views.

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Polls show the state’s voters are highly mobilized, deeply polarized and evenly divided over the future of their conservative Republican governor, Scott Walker, who drew national attention last year when he pushed a bill through the Legislature that eliminated collective bargaining rights for teachers and most other public employees.

A Marquette University Law School poll released last week showed Walker and his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in a dead heat with only 4% of voters undecided.

“I’ve been saying there are only 37 undecided voters left in the state, and we’re all chasing them,” joked Barrett, who won Tuesday’s Democratic primary to face Walker.

The changes in Wisconsin’s politics have delivered a society that is at once more involved and more divided. Voter apathy has vanished, but so too has much of Wisconsin’s vaunted civility.

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Nearly 1 in 5 of the state’s voters say they’ve attended a demonstration or rally over the last 16 months, according to the Marquette survey — far more than normal even for a presidential contest. One in five said they had contributed money. Half said they had tried to persuade others to vote their way.

When he served in the Legislature a generation ago, said Mordecai Lee, who now teaches political science at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, voters “had very little interest” in state government. “A million times I’d have voters say to me, ‘It doesn’t matter if I vote. It doesn’t matter which party wins.’

“Nobody says any of those things any more.”

That heightened interest comes at a price. Nearly 30% of people in the Marquette poll said they had stopped speaking to someone they knew because of political disagreements. Voters across the state in recent interviews talked of family gatherings disrupted, book groups and golf foursomes broken up and longtime friendships dissolved in partisan rancor.

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The recall split her family at Christmas, said Terri Spring, 59, a fundraiser for a children’s hospital in Madison and an active Democrat. Her sister-in-law objected to her recall petitions.

“We don’t understand her viewpoint at all,” said Spring, who was raised in a pro-union household. “We think everything in our life is on the line. It’s hard to understand people on the other side.”

For Michael Wozniak, a 40-year-old Walker supporter who owns a security company, the problem was his brother-in-law, a member of a private-sector union. “As soon as the conversation starts, he storms out of the room,” Wozniak said as he waited for Walker to appear at a recent rally in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek.

“Entrepreneurship and opportunity, that’s what’s worked for America,” Wozniak said, recounting how he had worked three jobs to pull himself up. “Effort and hard work, anybody can do it. There are no barriers in this country. Self-responsibility, that’s the bottom line.”

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Walker’s decision to take on the public employee unions made him a hero to conservative groups nationwide and a villain to unions. In January, his opponents delivered recall petitions with more than 900,000 signatures, an astounding total given that Walker had won just over 1.1 million votes in his 2010 election.

But though Walker’s move on bargaining was the spark that lighted Wisconsin’s explosion, the powder had been piling up for much of the last decade.

Spending on campaigns has increased vastly, as it has elsewhere — up 87% for Wisconsin legislative races between 2002 and 2010, for example. Much of that money comes from ideologically motivated interest groups on either side who often outspend the candidates, said Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which monitors election spending.

With outside groups spending so heavily, “legislators have become bit players in their own elections,” said state Sen. Dale Schultz, the former Senate Republican leader who was the only member of his caucus to vote against Walker’s collective bargaining bill. That, in turn, has heightened pressure for ideological conformity.

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On both sides, “there are an awful lot of people who pine for the tight, efficient system” of a parliamentary democracy, with strict party loyalty, Schultz said. “There’s just, like, an obsession with it.”

Now, both sides are using Wisconsin’s fight to test out their rhetorical and organizational weapons nationally for the fall election. Republicans warn that a Democratic victory will bring debt and higher taxes, while Democrats link Walker to union busting, environmental degradation and a “war on women.”

At his Oak Creek rally, where he campaigned with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Walker, a youthful-looking 44 with a low-key manner that belies his high-stakes political choices, told supporters he had acted to “put the power back in the hands of the people,” not the “union bosses.”

After years of tax increases under the state’s previous Democratic governor, Wisconsin’s business climate has improved, Walker said. His actions had set a “positive foundation” for the future, he added.

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“We make the tough choices in our lives,” he told supporters, “and we do it for our kids.” The question facing Wisconsin voters, he said, is: “Are we going to move forward so our kids will have a better future than we had, or are we going to move backward?”

Democrats counter that Wisconsin is the only state to have actually lost jobs over the last year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released last month. About half the losses came from cuts in government employment.

Walker has “succeeded in dividing the state; he’s not succeeded at creating jobs,” Barrett said at a recent appearance in Appleton, a small city 30 miles southwest of Green Bay.

All this is unfolding in a state that could be one of the handful to decide the presidential election. In 2000 and 2004, the presidential race here was among the tightest in the nation, with Democrats narrowly squeaking by both times.

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Four years ago, Barack Obama won the state by a 14-percentage-point margin, but recent polls indicate this year’s contest will be closer. The Marquette poll showed President Obama with a 51%-42% lead over Republican Mitt Romney.

For now, though, the intensity of the recall campaign has all but drowned out talk of the presidential election. Support from conservatives nationwide has enabled Walker to raise more than $23 million as of last week, shattering all previous state records. Sixty percent of his money has come from outside the state, according to state filings analyzed by McCabe’s group.

With outside groups on both sides pouring money into the fray, the total cost could hit $80 million, said McCabe — an amount more than twice the spending of the 2010 election. A deluge of ads has flowed onto the state’s television screens and will mount steadily over the next four weeks, although with so few voters open to changing their minds, advertising so far has had no measurable effect on polls.

On both sides, political figures and voters worry whether the current partisan intensity has become their state’s new norm.

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“This isn’t going to stop with one election,” said Sen. Schultz, the former Republican leader. When the idea of ending collective bargaining first came up in the Senate GOP caucus, he said, colleagues dismissed his warnings of trouble ahead, saying that “it’ll be over in three days or a week at most.”

“What we’re rediscovering is what happens when people don’t get along,” he said. “The hatred doesn’t go away.”

david.lauter@latimes.com


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