MADISON, Wis. — The candidates may be the same, but Wisconsin isn’t.
In the tumultuous 18 months since Republican Scott Walker defeated Democrat Tom Barrett in the 2010 governor’s race, Wisconsin has been rocked with massive protests over workers’ rights, recall elections over a contentious union rights law and a partisan divide that’s strained families and friendships.
Now, Walker and Barrett are headed for a rematch.
Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee since 2004, easily won the Democratic primary Tuesday and will take on Walker in the June 5 recall election. Walker defeated Barrett by 125,000 votes, or 5 percentage points, in 2010 as part of a GOP sweep into power that also saw them take the Legislature and knock off Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold.
The recall drive was sparked when Walker and Republicans passed a law that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers and forced them to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits. Walker contends the moves were necessary to help balance a state budget shortfall of $3.6 billion, while Democrats argue the law’s primary purpose was to eviscerate the unions, which tend to back their party.
It’s hard to find anyone in the state who doesn’t have an opinion on the matter, and that interest was underscored by Tuesday’s 30 percent turnout, which was the highest for a Wisconsin primary since 1952.
“We’re not going backward; we’re going forward!” Walker told his supporters Tuesday night.
He’s trying to frame the recall as a question of whether Wisconsin wants to go back to what he calls the failed policies of Democrats, or continue moving forward under him. Barrett and his fellow Democrats are presenting it as a referendum on Walker and his policies.
While the union fight spurred the recall, the campaign has been much broader and focused largely on Wisconsin’s economy. Though the state’s unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 2008, Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state between March 2011 and March 2012. Since Walker took office, only 5,900 private sector jobs have been created.
“Our view is Scott Walker has done a lot of damage to the state and Wisconsin can’t be fixed as long as Scott Walker is governor,” Barrett told The Associated Press.
Walker’s union rights measure blindsided his opponents, who proceeded to pack the state Capitol by the thousands for weeks of protest as Democratic lawmakers fled the state in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to block the newly minted governor’s plans.
After the measure passed, Walker’s opponents targeted six Republican state senators for recalls, and his supporters went after three of the Democrats who fled the state. Two of the Republicans lost, leaving the party with a single-vote Senate majority until the end of the legislative session, when one of the four current GOP Senate recall targets resigned. Those four seats, as well as that of Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, will also be up for grabs June 5.
Walker is hoping to avoid becoming the third governor in U.S. history to be recalled from office.
“It should never have come to this crap,” said Carl Schramm, 77, a Whitefish Bay man who works part time for a plumbing and heating contractor and who voted for Walker against token opposition in the GOP recall primary. “It’s stupid. It costs a lot of money. He was duly elected.”
Jon Dzurak, a 55-year-old assistant principal in Milwaukee, said he initially was leaning toward Democrat Kathleen Falk, but decided to vote for Barrett because he was up in the polls and projected to fare better against Walker.
“I just would like to see Scott Walker defeated. I’ve never seen a division in our state like this. I’m not talking to some of my friends right now because of it,” he said.
Barrett won the Democratic primary even though he wasn’t the favored candidate of the very unions that spurred the fight and helped organize the drive to collect more than 900,000 signatures to trigger the election.
Those unions backed Falk, a former Dane County executive, who promised to veto any budget that didn’t restore collective bargaining rights. Barrett, who has clashed with unions during his tenure as mayor of the state’s largest city, pledged only to try to restore those rights.
Despite that rift, both Falk and major union leaders issued statements supporting Barrett and promising to work together to defeat Walker.
Barrett may have the unions, but Walker has the money. He has tapped his status as a national conservative rock star to raise $25 million so far, most of it from out of state, shattering fundraising records he set during the 2010 race. He raised much of that money thanks to a quirk in Wisconsin law that allows officials targeted for recall to accept unlimited campaign donations for a time. For Walker, that window lasted nearly five months.
Walker had $4.9 million in the bank as of April 23, compared with Barrett’s $475,500. Barrett raised $831,500 this year so far.
Barrett, 58, has been popular in Milwaukee, where he won re-election in April with 70 percent of the vote. He previously served eight years in the state Legislature and 10 years in Congress.