MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The passions that fueled a more than yearlong fight over union rights and Wisconsin’s cash-strapped budget brought voters out in strong numbers Tuesday to decide whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
The first-term Republican was back on the ballot just a year and a half after his election. Enraged Democrats and labor activists gathered more than 900,000 signatures in support of the recall after they failed to stop Walker and his GOP allies in the state Legislature from stripping most public employees of their union right to collectively bargain.
Walker faced a rematch with Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who he beat in 2010 by nearly 6 percentage points, as he tries to become the first U.S. governor to successfully fend off a recall.
The recall effort began bubbling last year, shortly after the former Milwaukee County executive successfully pushed through the union rights proposal that also requires most state workers to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits.
“I think most people are just happy to have the election over,” Walker said at a suburban Milwaukee elementary school where he cast his ballot not long after polls opened. “I think most voters of the state want to have all the attack ads off. They want to have their TVs back. They want to have their lives back.”
Barrett meanwhile applauded the voters for turning out in force — and for being prepared to wait a while to cast their ballots.
“Obviously the lines are very, very long which we take as a very encouraging sign. People are engaged in this,” Barrett said, adding that the energy around the state the past four days has been “building and building and building.”
Turnout is key, and was strong across the state early Tuesday with few problems reported as some voters waited in line to cast their ballots. It was on pace to meet predictions of 65 percent of eligible votes, said Reid Magney, spokesman for the state Government Accountability Board.
“Typically we wait until 5 in the afternoon but we were chomping at the bit to just get it over and done with because I think it has been an unjust campaign waged against the governor,” said Jeff Naunheim, 48, a warranty analyst from St. Francis who voted for Walker first thing Tuesday.
Naunheim called the recall a waste of time and money, but Barrett supporter Lisa Switzter of Sun Prairie said even if the recall doesn’t go Barrett’s way, “it proves a point.”
“People in Wisconsin aren’t just going to stand by and let a governor take over the state and cut social services,” said Switzer, 48, an occupational therapist and single mother on BadgerCare, the state’s health insurance program for the working poor.
Polls indicated few voters were undecided before Tuesday and both sides hoped for strong support from their bases: Madison and Milwaukee for Democrats, suburban Milwaukee counties and in the Fox Valley around Green Bay for Republicans. Other more divided parts of the state, like along the western border and south of Milwaukee in the Racine area, could determine the race.
State elections officials predicted 60 percent to 65 percent of eligible voters would go to the polls, which is more on par with a presidential race. The last time Barrett and Walker faced each other, in November 2010, turnout was just shy of 50 percent.
Walker said the measures he pushed are needed to balance the state’s budget. But Democrats and labor leaders saw it as a political tactic designed to gut the power of his political opposition. They rallied by the tens of thousands at the state Capitol in protest, but could not stop Republicans who control the state Legislature from approving Walker’s plans.
It didn’t take long for opponents to call for a recall.
The petition drive couldn’t officially start until November — months after Walker’s triumph at the Legislature — because Wisconsin law requires that someone must be in office for at least a year before facing a recall. Organizers hit the streets a week before Thanksgiving and spent two months gathering more than 900,000 signatures — about 360,000 more than were needed to trigger the election. Barrett was chosen as Walker’s opponent in a primary last month.
Now, Walker stands in unique company: He is only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall vote. The other two lost, most recently California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.
Not all public workers oppose Walker’s moves.
“I’m paying the additional pension and health, and I’m fine with that,” said Greg Reiman, 55, who works for the Milwaukee County Department on Aging.
But William Dixon, 72, a self-employed woodworker from Whitefish Bay who voted for Barrett, said he was disgusted by the governor’s collective bargaining policies.
“I don’t think he’s been truthful,” Dixon said. Asking workers to pay more for benefits is one thing, “but I do think they have a right to bargain for wages.”
Walker, the 44-year-old son of a minister, has remained unflappable throughout the campaign. Along the way, he’s become a star among Republicans and the most successful fundraiser in Wisconsin politics, collecting at least $31 million from around the country since taking office. That obliterated his fundraising record of $11 million from 2010.
Walker and Republicans outspent Barrett and Democrats $47 million to $19 million, based on the most recent tally by the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Walker wasn’t the only politician up for recall. His lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and three Republican state senators also faced votes, and a fourth state Senate seat will be determined after the Republican incumbent resigned rather than face the recall.
Tuesday’s vote also will have implications for labor unions and the presidential election in November. Labor unions have a lot at stake because they pushed so hard to force a recall.
Implications for the presidential race were less clear, but President Obama did not campaign for Barrett. Instead, the president weighed in on the recall through social media, tweeting his support for Barrett while his campaign emailed supporters Tuesday urging them to support the Milwaukee mayor. But the White House cautioned against drawing any national conclusions from the recall’s outcome.
“A race where one side is outspending the other by at least a ratio of 8 to 1 probably won’t tell us much about a future race,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Republicans are hopeful a Walker victory would pave the way for Mitt Romney to win Wisconsin, making him the first GOP candidate to carry the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. If Walker loses, most agree Obama will have an edge. Either way, the state is likely to remain in play.
Associated Press writers Gretchen Ehlke and Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee, Todd Richmond in Sun Prairie, and Carrie Antlfinger in St. Francis contributed to this report.