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Wisconsin Recall Vote Becomes Microcosm of National Election

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Some political operatives argue that union leaders might end up wishing they had never sought to oust Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker (above) to begin with.

On the eve of Tuesday’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall vote that has become a proxy for the national election, labor organizers and Democrats remain plagued by missteps, internal squabbles and money woes that could reverberate into November.

Labor activists have long argued that their superior ground game will offset the considerable financial advantage enjoyed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his allies. But tea party and conservative organizers have mounted a formidable get-out-the-vote operation that is putting unions to the test. Some argue that union leaders may end up wishing they had never sought to oust Walker to begin with, especially given Wisconsin’s role as a key presidential swing state.

Republicans in Wisconsin “have oiled their machine without [GOP presidential nominee] Mitt Romney having spent a dollar on it,” said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform. “And it plays into the basic Republican narrative ... that Democrats are spendthrifts and can’t be trusted with money.”

Of course, the race could still tilt against Walker despite his slight edge in the polls in recent days. Even if Walker remains in office, his opponents could manage to unseat one of the four GOP state Senators also facing recall votes, handing Democrats control of the state Senate.

The costly and hard-fought recall, which has broken Wisconsin records with more than $63 million in spending, most of it from outside the state, has sent a signal to other GOP governors not to pass anti-collective-bargaining laws such as the one Walker championed, labor organizers argue. Led by a coalition of unions and progressive activists under the umbrella  of We Are Wisconsin, the recall effort has also given labor organizations a new model for how to partner with nonunion voters and community groups, the labor leaders say.

“I think it’s been a lesson learned and an example built,” said Bruce Colburn, vice president for SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, a Service Employees International Union local representing nurses and health care workers. “Because the story of Wisconsin isn’t just what Walker and the right wing did to the people of Wisconsin. It’s the people fighting back and building these new organizations and ways of working with each other.”

Still, the SEIU and its allies, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO, squandered time and money on a contentious primary that saw labor favorite Kathleen Falk edged out by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for the right to go head-to-head against Walker.

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