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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.

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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