MADISON, Wi. -- You could no more drive across the upper Midwest last week without noticing the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker than you could pass through Vidalia, Ga., on a summer day and not smell the onions.
The race has national implications and international interest. An Irish newspaper was among media at the Marquette University Law School last week for the final debate between Walker, a Republican, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat. That's because Ireland's teetering economy is one of the gathering clouds in Europe, with cuts in worker benefits spreading political unrest.
Wisconsin is a swing state and both presidential campaigns will spin the recall results as a harbinger for November. President Obama, embarrassed by campaigning in Massachusetts before his party lost the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, has prudently stayed out of the Wisconsin tilt.
The Badger State and Sunshine State have more in common than Republican governors named Scott. Gov. Rick Scott's bedrock management principles -- balancing the budget by cutting taxes and increasing pension and insurance costs for public employees -- are what got Wisconsin's Walker in trouble. And both men's poll numbers have been weak, but rising.
The difference (aside from the absence of a recall law in Florida) is organized labor. Unions are powerful in Wisconsin, which has closed shops, and weak in Florida, where the governor proudly touts the state's "right to work" law when wooing business. Walker has strategically stated that he does not intend to end compulsory union membership in the private sector, but advocates freedom to join or not join unions for government workers.
Barrett won the organized labor vote by 26 points two years ago, when he and Walker first ran against each other, and union families are expected to be one-fourth of the voters in today's recall election. But a Marquette poll last week indicated that Walker may get about 38 percent of the vote among union families -- not the public-sector unions, certainly.
Another behavioral indicator is the cooling ardor of the Democratic National Committee. Unions nationwide raised millions to gather about 900,000 voter signatures -- double the number required to force the recall election -- and labor leaders expected the Democratic National Committee to help finance the campaign. That hasn't happened much -- a tell-tale sign, like Obama's absence, that the national party thinks Walker will survive.
Bill Clinton did a late campaign appearance with Barrett, while Walker countered with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a heroine of the Tea Party movement. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Walker has raised about $30 million since January of 2011, 59 percent of it from out of state, while Barrett has raised only $3.9 million since entering the rematch March 30. About 26 percent of that came from outside Wisconsin.
Wisconsin made national news last winter, when 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois to prevent a vote that ultimately passed Walker's curbs on collective bargaining. Democrats mounted recalls against six senators, but knocked off only two, including one who had a bit of personal scandal that probably doomed his campaign. A Walker-friendly state Supreme Court justice also survived a union-backed challenge.
As always happens in the waning days of a campaign, public-opinion surveys have tightened but most have Walker up by 5 points or so. The best arguments he has going for him are the projected closing of a $3.6 billion budget gap by 2013 without a major tax hike, and lowering county property taxes.
Barrett, meanwhile, has been hampered by vagueness about what Walker tax cuts he'd rescind, and what pension or health care costs he'd shift back to the taxpayers.
Buyer's remorse is a poor reason to recall a guy. If Walker was caught with his pants down, literally or politically, there would be stronger reason to throw him out. But like Florida's Scott, Walker has done what he said he'd do -- which is why the unions backed Barrett against him that time, too.
Bill Cotterell, retired senior writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, has covered Florida government and politics since 1969. He can be reached at
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