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Wisconsin Democrats Choose Challenger to Run Against Governor in Recall Race

Wednesday, 09 May 2012 10:04 By Steven Yaccino, The New York Times News Service | Report
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Milwaukee - Wisconsin Democrats will get a do-over election between Gov. Scott Walker and Tom Barrett when the two face off in a rare recall vote next month.

Mr. Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, got the nod from his party after a statewide primary on Tuesday, beating a fellow Democrat, Kathleen Falk, a former Dane County executive who had been seen by some as labor’s preferred candidate.

The victory sets up a rematch of Mr. Barrett’s race against Mr. Walker in 2010, when the governor won by about five percentage points as Republicans took control of the state — not just in the governor’s office but also in both chambers of the Legislature.

While much of the attention over the past year has focused on the debate over Mr. Walker, the vote on Tuesday underscored one of the steepest challenges for the governor’s opposition: namely, that Democrats have, at least until now, failed to coalesce around an alternative. They now have less than a month to make a case to voters before they go back to the polls on June 5 for the recall election.

“This race is not about the past,” Mr. Barrett said in his victory speech to a crowd of supporters in a hotel ballroom in downtown Milwaukee. “It is about the future of Wisconsin.”

He added: “In the next 27 days, I need you like I’ve never needed you before. But more importantly, this state needs you like it’s never needed you before.”

Last year, tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the state capital after Mr. Walker, a Republican in his first term, stripped collective bargaining rights from most of the state’s public workers. In the months that followed, critics collected more than 900,000 signatures on recall papers — almost double the amount needed for a vote.

Five names appeared on Democratic ballots for governor across the state in a hurried recall campaign season that Mr. Barrett compared to “political speed dating.” The other candidates were Doug La Follette, the secretary of state; Kathleen Vinehout, a state senator; and Gladys Huber, a Republican-backed candidate who ran on the Democratic side.

Amid concerns that the winner may have problems with a fractured base, the candidates made an effort to attack Mr. Walker more than one another in the final days before the primary.

As many Democrats had expected, the anti-Walker forces began closing ranks around the new nominee on Tuesday night, with quick endorsements from Ms. Falk and Afscme Wisconsin, one of the unions that had supported her. But recent polls and fund-raising totals suggest that the party has little room for distractions in its quest to unseat the well-financed governor.

Since the start of 2011, Mr. Walker has raised more than $25 million. Campaign finance reports released by candidates last week showed that Mr. Walker raised more than $13 million over the past three months alone, dwarfing Mr. Barrett’s $831,000 and Ms. Falk’s $977,000.

That advantage, however, was less apparent in a poll conducted last month by Marquette University Law School that showed Mr. Walker and Mr. Barrett essentially tied in a general election matchup. Mr. Walker led Ms. Falk 49 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, a six-point advantage that is within the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points on each candidate.

Tuesday’s vote also decided the Democratic nominees for other recall elections against Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor and four state senators.

Before any votes were cast, the primary revealed signs that the focus of the recall election was widening to beyond the union outrage that prompted it. According to a recent jobs report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin was the only state in the nation to show a “statistically significant” decrease in employment, losing 23,900 jobs from March 2011 to March 2012. The Democrats have blamed Mr. Walker for the job losses.

The governor, in a television advertisement, has countered that the state’s unemployment rate, about 7 percent, is the lowest it has been since 2008.

Mr. Walker has also faced questions about a criminal investigation into aides and appointees from a period before he was governor, when he was the executive of Milwaukee County.

The governor, who easily won his own primary contest on Tuesday, expressed confidence about the challenge from the Democrats. “Just as they did in 2010, we believe voters will stand with Scott Walker and his plans to keep Wisconsin moving forward,” Ciara Matthews, a spokeswoman for Mr. Walker’s campaign, said in an e-mail.

To put to rest any remaining concerns about a divided front, Democrats were planning a post-primary event for Wednesday to show their support for the nominee, said Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

“We have one path to winning this thing,” he said, “and it’s unity.”

This article, "Wisconsin Democrats Choose Challenger to Run Against Governor in Recall Race," originally appears at the New York Times News Service.

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Steven Yaccino

Steven Yaccino is a contibuting writer to the New York Times.


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