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Wisconsin Recall Vote Becomes Microcosm of National Election

Darren Hauck/Getty Images
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.

Labor leaders also have aggravated Democrats by complaining that the national party failed to step in with sufficient resources. Democratic National Committee officials counter that national Democrats have directed $1.5 million to the recall effort and deployed staff, offices, volunteers and online resources in the state. DNC Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) campaigned with and held a fundraiser for Barrett,  and President Bill Clinton also visited the state.

Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski downplayed the friction, calling it “a D.C. parlor kerfuffle that didn’t have any effect on the race here.” Democrats have played up public reports that tie Walker to a state investigation involving several of his former aides, and even Democrats on Capitol Hill have gotten in on the act.

On May 25, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, joined with two other Democrats on the panel in a letter to Walker challenging the governor’s testimony on Capitol Hill last year to the effect that his anti-union law was not intended to punish Democrats and their donor base.

Democrats have put a brave face on their struggles. Walker “has got this huge cash advantage, but we have a huge ground advantage,” Zielinski maintained.

But tea party organizers have been in Wisconsin for at least 10 months, attracting money and volunteers from a host of well-funded conservative groups around the country. These include a Texas-based conservative nonprofit dubbed American Majority Action, which set up a “Liberty Central” headquarters program in Wisconsin that deployed more than a dozen field staff and outfitted volunteers with tablet computer-based tools to target voters through phone banks and door knocking.

Much national media attention has focused on the big money poured into the race, including close to $30 million by Walker and $2.9 million by Barrett, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit that follows political money. Thanks to a quirk in the state law, Walker drew unrestricted, six-figure contributions in the months before the recall was put on the ballot from national GOP donors such as Texas home builder Bob Perry and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave $250,000 each.

National groups such as the Republican Governors Association, the National Rifle Association and Americans for Prosperity on the right and the Democratic Governors Association and labor and progressive groups on the left have also spent more than $30 million. The spending has totaled about $16.3 million for pro-Walker groups and $14.3 million for his opponents, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Less noticed has been the time and money that conservative and tea party activists have put into voter mobilization. For Democrats and labor unions, who are also being nationally outspent by GOP-friendly super PACs, this might be the most worrisome aspect of the bruising Wisconsin recall fight.

“For years, the left, the progressive movement, the Democrats, have had this vaunted ground game of the labor unions,” said Drew Ryun, president of American Majority Action. “They are now going toe to toe with the ground troops of the conservative movement.”

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