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Wisconsin Democrats divided over who to best oust Walker in recall election

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is one of the targets of a recall election on June 5. (Seth Perlman/AP)

Wisconsin Democrats organized the protests that gripped the state. They turned Gov. Scott Walker’s plans to strip public unions of their collective bargaining rights into a national Democratic cause. They got the signatures they needed to force a recall election, and then some.

They are now just a little more than a month away from the big showdown with Walker they have been craving for over a year — but rather than excitement, there is growing fear within the party that they just might blow it.

The problem for Democrats is that before they get their shot against Walker, they have to get through a divisive primary between an establishment pick and a union favorite that is threatening to undercut their unified front against the governor.

“We’re nervous,” said Julie Wells, who works with the grass-roots group United Wisconsin. Wells, a forklift operator from Fort Akinson, filed the papers to recall Walker, and she was there when they were submitted. But now volunteers who promised to help aren’t showing up. “We know that we can win this, but we’re not seeing the level of participation we saw during the signature-gathering phase,” she said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker by six percentage points in 2010, is the establishment pick for the May 8 Democratic primary. He leads three other primary candidates by double-digits, according to the latest polls. He has the support of most prominent elected officials in the state and, in a sign of his standing, Republicans have focused their attacks on him.

Kathleen Falk is the candidate favored by the unions in the Wisconsin Democratic primary on May 8. (Scott Bauer/AP)

“The Republicans do not want me to emerge from this primary,” Barrett told a crowd of a hundred or so at a Waukesha coffee shop last week. “They’ve made commercials about several candidates, they’re only running them against me,” he said, because “they view me as the strongest candidate.”

But most of the unions that first revolted against Walker’s legislation have endorsed another candidate: former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk.

For many union leaders, Barrett is, if not as bad as Walker, not good enough either. As mayor, he used the rule changes championed by Walker to take away benefits from city employees. While Falk committed to vetoing any budget that does not include collective bargaining, Barrett favors a more conciliatory special session of the legislature.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in particular, has aggressively attacked Barrett, at one point suggesting that he supported Walker’s reforms.

Falk argues that her candidacy better embodies Wisconsin’s progressive tradition. “I have the support of this movement,” Falk said from her campaign headquarters in Madison, not far from the State Capitol steps where the protests began. “I have been here every step of the way.”

Falk got into the race in November and was there when the petitions were delivered. Barrett didn’t declare his candidacy until late March. Falk’s most recent ad declares that “only one candidate” in the race “was there from the start.”

Yet polls show Barrett is viewed more favorably than Falk and has higher name recognition. He has the support of prominent Democratic officials in the state, including Sen. Herb Kohl and former Rep. David Obey, who said Wednesday that the Democratic infighting was a “suicide pact.”

Walker, himself, has suggested that Barrett is the tougher candidate. Republican State Assembly Leader Scott Fitzgerald has suggested that some Republicans will vote for Falk in the open primary, to give Walker a weaker opponent.

“I thought it was premature” for the unions to back Falk, said Joyce Gonis Schmitz, a retired school social worker who attended Barrett’s event in Waukesha. “That’s reacting like an ADHD kid without meds. Let’s be strategic here, let’s see who can beat Walker.”

Falk’s union supporters argue that the primary is good for the party in more ways than one. Not only is she “the stronger candidate and the better candidate,” said Rich Abelson, executive director of Wisconsin’s AFSCME District Council 48, but a divided primary means Walker couldn’t focus all his attacks on one person.

But Democrats in the state aren’t so sure. “The unions could go out in a blaze of glory and take Barrett down two or three points that we need in the general election,” said a top official of the recall movement who has not taken sides in the primary and would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

If the Democrats can’t quite unite, their opposition is both united and well-funded.

“They set up this World Series event,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at an Arizona event last week, “and they didn’t get the people that they wanted to run against Scott Walker. And so what they have are a couple people that have perfected the art of running for statewide elections and losing.”

In addition to Walker, his lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators face recall elections on June 5. (Democrats are more bullish on taking back the state Senate, where they need only one victory.)

Money to support them has poured in from conservatives all over the country who see Walker as a hero standing up to big labor. When the last fundraising reports were filed in January, Walker had raised more than $12 million. Falk had raised less than $17,000. Barrett wasn’t in the race yet. Since January, Barrett has raised $750,000 and Falk $1 million. Walker has yet to release his latest haul.

“Scott Walker will have more money than God,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski.

Which is not to say that Democrats are without resources.

The Democratic Governors Association has sent $500,000 to Greater Wisconsin, an outside group that just launched its first ad, attacking Walker’s jobs record.

Unions spent $12 million on the state Senate recalls last year and plan to spend at least that much this time around. But Wisconsin For Falk, a union-backed political action committee, has already spent $4 million to boost their candidate — money that could have been used against Walker.

Recent news gave Democrats some ammunition. Wisconsin lost 4,500 jobs in March, mostly in the private sector, leaving Walker with little progress on his campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs. He repealed the state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act, added new abortion restrictions and mandated sex-education that stresses abstinence over contraception — all measures that play into Democrats’ national mantra of a Republican “war on women.”

For all of the money and effort put into the recall effort, only 3 or 4 percent of voters are undecided about Walker and his policies. Republicans are as certain of Walker’s courage and good sense as Democrats are of his perfidy.

As the primary campaign continues, polls show that independent voters are shifting to Walker. His approval ratings are higher than they were a year ago, although he’s still below 50 percent.

“We’ve been waiting all this time, and now we get our day of reckoning,” said Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin. He’s challenging Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R). “If we win, its a huge win. It’s huge.”

And if they lose?

“There’s no way to spin that.”

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.

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