Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin can agree on one thing — their state is at war.
The recall campaign against Gov. Scott Walker (R) has divided friends, family members, even spouses. Whether Walker keeps his seat or loses to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) next Tuesday, the wounds created by this race will take a long time to heal.
Poll after poll shows only a tiny fraction of Wisconsin voters are undecided on the recall. Pollsters marvel at the incredibly high level of polarization in the electorate; in the latest Marquette poll, just 3 percent of respondents had no opinions — with favorable or unfavorable — about Walker.
In Wisconsin — a good government state where politics is more friendly than ferocious — the people behind the polarization acknowledge that the race has tested the state’s polite reputation.
“If you want to have any idea what it’s like, put a Scott Walker sign on the back of your car and drive to Madison,” Walker volunteer Ken Milton said of how personally people are taking the race. The last time Milton did just that “I had a person wave to me in a very unfriendly manner,” he said.
Sometimes the division is even more personal.
“My best friend is pro-Walker,” said Bruce Brewer, a Democratic in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale. “We’ll talk about everything else and he’s been there for me and vice versa for 30 years, but suddenly something’s come up that’s divided us so intensely that we can’t even talk about it.”
Barb Johnson, a Walker volunteer, from Waukesha, said her sister-in-law was a teacher, a good friend, and an opponent of the governor. “We try to keep it — you know, we still talk to each other, but it’s hard,” said “I think it’s harder than it’s ever been.”
Marquette pollster Charles Franklin says “there is some evidence of partisanship expanding” in the state. Gallup estimates that 15 percent of Wisconsinites are independents. The last Marquette survey, when leaners to one party or the other are included, just eight percent of people identified as independents. From January to May that number has been as low as 10 percent.
If Republicans and Democrats agree that the state is in a sort of un-civil war, their ideas on who started it and who can end it fall along predictable lines.
Barrett argues that Walker began the strife with his push to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions in 2011.
“Governor Walker started this civil war,” Barrett says frequently as he stumps around the state.
Republicans counter that Democrats divided the state with the recall campaigns, the first of which launched last summer against four Republican state senators. Two lost their seats but Republicans kept control of the chamber by a single vote.
One Walker video, “Civility,” shows Barrett speaking passionately about how he would confront the legislature, concluding: “Barrett sounds like he wants to start his own civil war.”
And on both sides, voters argue that that their candidate will end the division. On one visit to a Waukesha coffee shop, Barrett said a vote against Walker is a chance to return to “a Wisconsin where we can fight about sports and not fight about politics.”
Walker supporters argue that should the governor win, he could move past the recall and heal the state. (He’s already trying to do just that in the campaign, focusing on jobs and the economy not the collective bargaining law.) If he loses, they say, it will only be the start of a new fight.
“If Scott Walker wins, I hope it will be over,” said Marie Schmud, a Walker volunteer from Brookfield. “But if he doesn’t win I think it’s only going to be worse.”
Yet many on both sides say that regardless of the outcome, it will be hard to return to the way things were.
As Laurie Grabow, a Barrett supporter in Waukesha said, “Once you let that genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back in.
Senior political reporter Dan Balz contributed to this report.