The Dems’ chances of ousting Scott Walker in a recall election could turn heavily on who they pick to take him on: Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, or former environmental attorney and Dane County executive Kathleen Falk. The latter is the choice of many unions and progressives, because she is more aggressively committed to restoring public employee bargaining rights.

The battle between the two of them — which will be settled in the Dem primary on May 8th — could turn on these questions: Would it really be a mistake to pick a Democrat who is too pro-union to beat Walker? Does being too pro-union risk alienating independents?

These questions have now surfaced in the race, now that one of Barrett’s top supporters has thrown a bomb into the contest, by invoking Jimmy Hoffa and comparing unions implicitly to the Koch brothers.

Barrett has recently touted the support of Dave Cieslewicz, the former mayor of Madison. In a piece that is making the rounds among Dem primary voters, Cieslewicz writes that Barrett is the better candidate to pick up independents, because Falk has pledged to veto any budget that doesn’t include restoration of bargaining rights:

The winning Democrat will be one who is seen as independent-minded, someone who can make a credible claim to having the interests of the whole state at heart. A candidate beholden to big unions is no more appealing to independent voters than one who answers to the Koch brothers....

Wisconsin voters like politicians like Robert La Follette and Gaylord Nelson and Bill Proxmire, all of whom bucked their own party bosses, and yet the unions seem to want to offer them Jimmy Hoffa instead....

The very fact that WEAC and AFSCME are not supporting [Barrett] in the May 8 primary may paint him as the free agent who will appeal to independents. Inadvertently, the big unions may have helped identify the candidate who can win.

This is a pretty curious turn of events. I don’t claim to know which candidate is better against Walker, and it’s true that union issues have receded from the recall battle. But this fight was originally born amid a spontaneous grassroots uprising to defend the rights of public employees. Unions have invested over a year and untold amounts of money in this battle because it will ultimately be seen by both sides as a referendum on the conservative movement’s drive to roll back the power of labor nationally. So it seems odd to argue that the way to win is to triangulate against labor. What’s the whole point of this fight again?

By the way, Wisconsin readers, please tell me what you’re seeing and hearing on the ground in the recall battle. The primary is in less than a month, and the general election is on June 5th — right around the corner.