By Scott Bauer
Democratic recall candidates for governor Tom Barrett (from left), Kathleen Falk, Doug La Follette and Kathleen Vinehout wait before the start of a live debat at the Wisconsin Public Television studio in Madison on Friday. The Democratic front-runners vying for a chance to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a June recall election bashed the governor during a debate Friday, accusing him of failing to create jobs and dividing the state along ideological lines. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rick Wood)
MADISON — The leading Democratic candidates in the race to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker in only the nation’s third gubernatorial recall election made their final campaign stops Monday before the primary.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the last of the four Democrats to get into the race, has emerged as the front-runner in the Tuesday vote. A Marquette University poll released last week showing him with a 17-point lead over Kathleen Falk. The margin of error was 4.7 percentage points.
Barrett’s apparent edge comes despite Falk being the favored candidate of the major unions that spurred the recall against Walker, including the statewide teachers union and the AFL-CIO.
Walker was targeted for recall after succeeding last year with enacting a law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most state workers, sparking weeks of protests and making Wisconsin the center of the national struggle with unions.
Walker since has emerged as a national conservative hero and the embodiment of the Republican rise to power in 2010. He has shattered Wisconsin campaign finance records, raising $25 million as he tries to keep his job in the face of the historic recall. About two-thirds of what Walker raised came from outside Wisconsin.
While the union fight spurred the recall, the campaign has been much broader and also largely focused on the state’s economy and Walker’s 2010 campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs over four years.
The state’s unemployment rate is at the lowest level it’s been since 2008, but Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state between March 2011 and March 2012. Since Walker took office 16 months ago, only 5,900 private sector jobs have been created.
Barrett, who lost to Walker by 5 points in 2010, wants a rematch.
Barrett was spending the last day before the primary meeting with voters in Sheboygan and Kenosha. Falk planned a pair of campaign stops in Barrett’s backyard, meeting with students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus and talking with union workers at a Milwaukee elementary school.
Two other Democrats in the race, Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, ran much more low-profile campaigns and failed to gain traction with voters. La Follette said he was spending Monday posting messages on Facebook urging people to vote for him.
“I am relying on the people who stood in the cold and rain and made this recall possible for their support,” La Follette wrote.
Vinehout’s campaign spokeswoman immediately did not return a message Monday.
Walker planned to visit workers at the Emmi Roth cheese plant in Monroe and tour the Rayovac facility in Fennimore on Monday. Both stops were organized through his official office and not his campaign.
His campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Walker would be making campaign stops Tuesday.
Walker faces token opposition in the primary from Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a Walker opponent who says he is running as a Republican in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Bob La Follette.
Gladys Huber, a Republican, also is on the ballot on the Democratic side.
Turnout for the primary was predicted at between 30 percent and 35 percent of eligible voters, which would be the highest for a primary in a governor’s race since 38.9 percent in 1952.
The Government Accountability Board predicts between 1.3 million and 1.5 million people will vote in the primary. In the 2010 governor’s race, a little more than 1 million people voted for Barrett. Walker got 1.1 million votes and won by about 125,000 votes.
The general election is just a month away June 5.
Erik Dahlberg, a 51-year-old investment adviser from Beloit, called the recall process a “sham” and said he planned to vote for Walker. If people don’t like Walker’s policies, they should vote him out in 2014, Dahlberg said.
“He deserves the four years he earned,” Dahlberg said of Walker. “We run the guy out of office for doing what he said he’d do? He didn’t rob a bank. … Be reasonable. I just think the political process should be allowed to work.”
Feelings run deep in recall
RACINE – Al Trossen feels like a wanted man.
The former Teamster voted for embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 but isn’t sure who to support in the state’s historic recall election next month.
“There’s so much bashing on both sides,” the 71-year-old retired truck driver said. “How does a person know what to believe?”
In the days before the Democratic primary to decide who will take on the Republican Walker, and just weeks until the general election, it wasn’t easy to find undecided voters such as Trossen. One recent poll put the percentage of undecided voters in the low single digits.
But that tiny group will be the focus of extraordinary attention in a fiercely fought campaign that has become a national battle over worker rights. With the race a virtual tossup, the rival forces — which include the national Democratic and Republican parties, powerful conservative interest groups and organized labor — must hone their closing arguments for people who so far have been unmoved by months of impassioned appeals.
“I don’t think there’s a huge persuadable universe out there in this campaign,” Republican strategist Mark Graul said.
With the undecided amounting to perhaps 2 to 4 percent, said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist, “The challenge on both sides is to get people motivated to vote.”
Most Wisconsin voters already love or hate Walker. Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the Capitol for three weeks last year after he made his push to end most public employees’ bargaining rights to help fix the state’s budget problems.
Recall organizers easily gathered nearly a million signatures supporting his removal, but Walker’s supporters also flooded his campaign with more than $25 million. The campaigns and special interests have spent about $40 million on a political blitz that has penetrated every household.
But voters who are still wavering include some who approved of Walker’s cuts to state spending but who found his tactics too confrontational. They also include Democrats who sympathize with state workers but think Walker earned the right to serve his entire term.
Some say they’re still trying to figure out whether Wisconsin’s economy is better or worse off with Walker.
“I want to find out the truth. Have we created more jobs?” said Trossen, among the voters interviewed between Racine and Sun Prairie.
Walker credits his conservative, business-friendly policies for helping reduce the state’s unemployment rate to 6.8 percent, the lowest since 2008.
However, federal reports also show Wisconsin lost more jobs in the past year than did any other state.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker by 5 percentage points in the 2010 election, is expected to win the chance in Tuesday’s Democratic primary to face Walker in the June 5 general election. Polls showed Barrett leading former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who received heavy union backing; Secretary of State Doug La Follette; and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
Sun Prairie resident Cathy Fleury, 50, voted for Barrett in 2010 but is torn over whether he would be an improvement over Walker. She said she dislikes Walker’s tough tactics but added Democrats haven’t offered any new ideas for the state’s fiscal condition.
“If nothing changes,” she said, “if nobody comes up with a new platform or any genuine new ideas to make a change, it’ll be like a flip of a coin.”
Jim Morelli, 52, a safety representative at We Energies, said he intends to listen to what the candidates say about creating jobs and improving the economy. Though he’s inclined to let Walker finish his term, “I’m sure there’s something they could say to change my mind,” he said.
The state elections board predicts a voter turnout of 30 percent to 35 percent, or between 1.3 million and 1.5 million people, for Tuesday’s primary, which would be the highest for a partisan Wisconsin primary in 60 years.
Turnout also is expected to be high in June, and the race now appears to be roughly even.
The candidates are relying on attack ads to sway or motivate voters. TV and Internet ads for Barrett and Falk accuse the governor of cutting money for education and failing to create the 250,000 jobs he promised in the 2010 campaign. Ads on behalf of Walker portray Barrett as the mayor of a failing city with a poor economy and Falk as a poor fiscal manager.
Undecided voters interviewed stressed party ties don’t matter at this point.
Wendy Hanson of Marshal voted for Walker in 2010 but later signed a recall petition against him. She said she was turned off by his “dictatorial” style, but neither is she impressed by what she sees as a lackluster crop of Democrats.
She said no candidates have given her a reason to vote for them.
“The way this is right now, it’s going to be the way I feel on Election Day, unless something comes out of the box to sway me,” the 50-year-old said. “I don’t know what that would be.”
– Dinesh Ramde, Associated Press