After 15 months of clamoring for Scott Walker’s recall, Wisconsin Democrats learned in the May 8 primary that Republicans are just as energized in their defense of the first-term governor.
Walker collected almost as many votes as all four Democratic candidates combined in a race he was all but assured of winning. A count by the Associated Press had the governor winning 626,538 votes compared with 665,436 for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and three other contenders.
“The Republicans treated this in terms of getting out their vote as if it were a general election,” Barrett said during a news conference yesterday in Milwaukee. “They worked as hard as they could.”
The turnout offered a hint of what might come June 5 with two energized parties clashing in only the third recall of a governor in U.S. history, said Charles Franklin, who directs the Marquette Law School poll. In 2010, 2.1 million people voted in the governor’s race.
“There’s every reason to believe we’ll hit 2.5 million or higher, easily,” Franklin said.
With 26 days before the recall vote, polls show hardened attitudes among Republicans and Democrats.
“Governor Walker’s supporters are fired up and are ready to do whatever it takes to win this thing,” said Ben Sparks, communications director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. “Intensity is high.”
While Barrett won his party’s primary -- and a do-over of the 2010 gubernatorial contest that he lost -- the selection of a nominee “is almost irrelevant,” said Dane County Democratic Party Chairman Mike Basford. “For many, the only candidate on the ballot is Scott Walker.”
Barrett’s 24 percentage point win over former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk shows how the effort to oust Walker has changed. In February 2011, protesters massed at the Capitol in Madison objecting to limits on collective bargaining by most public workers that Walker pushed through the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Organized labor played a key role in obtaining signatures to force the recall election, yet a May 2 Marquette poll showed that Walker’s union law was not the top concern of Democrats. Job creation ranked first, at 46 percent. Defeating Walker ranked second at 25 percent and ending divisiveness was third at 14 percent.
Restoring collective-bargaining rights was fourth, with 12 percent, the poll said.
Democrats are drawing from the Republican campaign playbook against President Barack Obama and turning it against the governor. They point to Walker’s promise of 250,000 new jobs in his first term and note that Wisconsin has lost more employment than any other state in the past year.
Labor, which backed Falk, showed the limitations of its clout in the primary, Franklin said. Barrett ran up heavy majorities in blue-collar counties of southeastern Wisconsin.
“The recall shows how strong their organizing strengths are, but organizing takes you only so far,” Franklin said. “You have to have a candidate and the issues on your side. Barrett avoids some of the liabilities of being labor’s hand-picked candidate.”
Walker has raised more than $25 million for the recall and, as of April 30, had $4.9 million remaining, according to state finance records. The combined total of contributions, much of it coming from out-of-state interests, has already exceeded the $37.4 million spent in the 2010 governor’s race between Barrett and Walker.
Barrett, who lost to Walker by about 125,000 votes two years ago, said he “walks away encouraged” that more Democrats voted than Republicans. He said his party is united because “we all understand what’s at stake.”