By Kevin Bogardus and Meghashyam Mali - 06/04/12 09:00 AM EDT
Wisconsin voters are set to go to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether Gov. Scott Walker (R) will stay in office, an election that could have implications far beyond the state and could prove to be a key test of union power ahead of the November presidential election.
Walker himself became a conservative icon after confronting labor last year by pushing through legislation that limited public workers’ collective bargaining rights, leading to the recall.
But the stakes are particularly high for labor groups, which have invested heavily in the fight to unseat Walker and have expressed concerns that their traditional Democratic allies haven’t been as committed.
More than $63 million has been spent by Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, his Democratic challenger, as well as outside groups. That figure tops the more than $34 million spent on the 2010 gubernatorial race, making it Wisconsin’s most expensive state contest in history.
Republicans and Democrats agree that the Tuesday showdown could be a preview of November’s presidential race. A Walker win in battleground Wisconsin could boost Republican hopes to take the state, which has gone blue in the last several campaigns for the White House. A Walker defeat could also energize Democratic supporters ahead of the presidential contest.
Asked on Fox News Sunday whether a Walker victory meant Wisconsin swings to Romney in the fall, Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s campaign, said he couldn’t say, but that more states in the region are moving toward the GOP.
“There is something going on in Wisconsin and all across the Great Lakes where it is moving away from liberal Democratic policies and for more reform-oriented Republican policies,” Gillespie said.
Walker is only the third governor to face a recall election in American history. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who saw anti-collective bargaining rights legislation he backed overturned in a citizens’ referendum last year, called a potential Walker win “amazing.”
“I think Walker is probably going to win. I mean, I think — it's really amazing. He has done a fantastic job. And I think he is going to win this,” Kasich said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Democrats have said they must win Tuesday so others don’t follow Walker’s example.
“It will embolden other Tea Party types to continue the work that he’s already started,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.). “Of course it will embolden them. That’s why we are doubling down on our resolve to beat back this national Tea Party effort.”
Several polls show Walker slightly ahead of Barrett, but the Milwaukee mayor’s supporters are looking for a massive turnout operation to successfully recall the governor on Tuesday.
Barrett on Sunday said Walker had lost focus on what was best for Wisconsin and was using the high-profile recall fight to boost his standing among conservatives nationally.
“He wants to be on the national stage as the rock star of the far right, as the poster boy of the Tea Party,” Barrett said on CNN’s "State of the Union."
Barrett's campaign has recently gone after Walker for a criminal investigation involving several of his former aides from his time in the Milwaukee County Executive's office. Walker has denied he's a target of the probe.
Walker’s backers say that he has kept promises and that his reforms aimed at public-sector unions have worked, with jobs returning to Wisconsin.
“Scott Walker is talking about his record. He’s talking about that the fact that his reforms are working, that people are getting back to work, that businesses are coming in,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on CBS’s "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
A Walker victory would be a huge loss for unions, who have made his defeat a top priority. Some in labor have said national Democrats have not recognized the race’s significance and haven’t committed enough financial resources.
Gerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said Thursday that more could have been done.
“We think that there could have been more responsibility, more work on behalf of the national Democratic Party. I think the Democratic Party in Wisconsin did basically everything that they could and can,” McEntee said. “We think they could and should have done more.”
Democrats, however, have pushed back against the criticism from union groups, noting that the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has directed over $3 million to the recall and that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has invested nearly $1.5 million in political infrastructure for Wisconsin this election cycle. President Bill Clinton also campaigned with Barrett on Friday.
But President Obama’s reelection campaign has sought to distance itself from Barrett as the recall election approaches. On Wednesday, Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown” that the recall would have little impact on their contest against Romney.
“This is a gubernatorial race with a guy who was recalled and a challenger trying to get him out of office. It has nothing to do with President Obama at the top of the ticket and it certainly doesn't have anything to do with Mitt Romney at the top of the Republican ticket," Cutter said. "There may be some that will predict that it means doom for us in Wisconsin in the fall elections, but I think they'll be proven wrong.”
Republicans have noted that the president has been absent from the state recently. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R) told CNN on Friday that means Obama doesn’t want to be associated with Barrett.
“What's more obvious is that the president himself — the current president — is not in town,” Kleefisch said. "I think what it says specifically is that the president doesn't want to be associated with a losing campaign, and Tom Barrett's campaign right now doesn't have a whole lot of facts to stand on."