MADISON, Wis. — It’s not yet clear whether Wisconsin will become a presidential battleground in November. But at least for the next two months, the Badger State will be at the epicenter of American politics as voters decide for only the third time in the nation’s history whether to recall a sitting governor.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been in office for only 15 months, and his state has been in turmoil virtually the entire time. His decision to eliminate most collective-bargaining rights for public employee unions has touched off a political war that has left Wisconsin as polarized as any state in the country.
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This homegrown fight has national implications. Walker has become a symbol of Republican governance in today’s GOP. He is campaigning energetically and unapologetically, arguing that he took courageous action to deal with his state’s severe fiscal problems — the same thing Republicans are saying should be done nationally. Walker contends that his policies have been good for the state’s economy and its taxpayers.
His opponents see those policies almost exactly the way President Obama described the federal budget written by Walker’s Wisconsin soul mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, and passed recently by the House. Last week, Obama called the Ryan budget a radical document that would put the country in decline. That echoes the view of Walker’s opponents, who say his actions have hurt the state and unfairly punished state employees.
For those who complain about the length of political campaigns, Wisconsin will be the antidote. The recall campaign will be short, if not sweet. Democrats will select their nominee in a May 8 primary that pits Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett against former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk. The winner will face Walker on June 5.
The recall election will be costly and consequential. Tens of millions of dollars will be spent in the battle to unseat Walker, and both sides are gearing up. The governor was able to take advantage of a loophole in state campaign finance law that allowed him to accept individual contributions, normally limited to $10,000, in unlimited amounts while the recall petition process was underway. Much of that money has come from outside the state.
Walker also will have ample support from the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, the former Wisconsin GOP chair, pledged last weekend, “Anything Scott Walker needs from the RNC, Scott Walker is going to get from the RNC.”
Walker has justified his fundraising spree by arguing that he faces a barrage of outside money that will be raised and spent by public employee unions. He has cast the campaign not as Republican vs. Democrat but as Walker vs. the unions. At a Republican dinner in Waukesha County a week ago, he summed up the choice this way: “Do we have a governor who is owned by the big government union and the out-of-state special interests, or do we want a governor who firmly stands with the hardworking taxpayers of this great state?”