The Wisconsin vote pitting Gov. Scott Walker against Tom Barrett will send a message about Americans’ attitudes toward candidates who cut collective bargaining rights.
And in many ways it is. The outcome of the election on Tuesday will not just decide the state’s leanings on matters of budget, taxes and policy, as well as the ultimate trajectory of Mr. Walker’s fast-rising political prospects. It will also send a message about a larger fight over labor across the country, and about whether voters are likely to reject those who cut collective bargaining rights, as Governor Walker did here last year for most of the state’s public workers, setting off this battle in the first place.
Broadly, the results will be held up as an omen for the presidential race in the fall, specifically for President Obama’s chances of capturing this Midwestern battleground — one that he easily won in 2008 but that Republicans nearly swept in the midterm elections of 2010.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Walker, who is only the third governor in the nation to face a recall election, dashed onto a makeshift stage on a loading dock here as supporters screamed, the song “Only in America” pounded from loudspeakers, a bank of television cameras rolled and Mr. Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, beamed behind him.
Mr. Walker’s Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, who holds the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents who began seeking Mr. Walker’s recall just a year into the governor’s first term, has trailed in some public polls, though Mr. Walker’s lead has generally fallen within each poll’s margin of sampling error.
He has drawn his own outside help from national Democrats as well as from union groups, which are operating at least 32 field offices here and say they have been building neighborhood alliances with advocates for environmental issues, women, retirees and other causes. In the last few months, Mr. Barrett has raised more than $4 million in contributions — a lot, though not on the same scale as Mr. Walker, who benefited from a quirk in state law that allowed him to raise unlimited contributions (in some cases, as much as $500,000 from individual donors) for his campaign’s expenses before a recall was officially declared by the state.
At a restaurant in Mondovi, a small town in western Wisconsin, a table of women continued their bridge game the other day as Mr. Barrett asked for the crowd’s votes, pledged to end the “civil war” that has boiled over in Wisconsin in the last 16 months and poked at his opponent’s blossoming national profile.
“He loves being the poster boy for the Tea Party movement in this country,” Mr. Barrett, addressing another group jammed into a cafe in Menomonie, said of Mr. Walker. “And he has had a lot of success — he’s become the rock star of the far right.”
Former President Bill Clinton was expected to arrive here on Friday to campaign for Mr. Barrett, but to the disappointment of some voters, Mr. Obama has not appeared in person to bolster the campaign, nor have his top surrogates.
Although the president has conveyed his support for Mr. Barrett, the recall is an undeniably complex calculus for Mr. Obama’s strategists: Wisconsin has voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 1988, but the margins have sometimes been remarkably slim, and the recall election has led independents and Republicans who voted for Mr. Obama four years ago to take sides. He needs their votes in November and may not want to alienate them by stepping conspicuously into the fight.
Wisconsin residents once brimmed with stories of bipartisan cooperation — or at least civilized discourse between opposing political sides. Overflowing here now: stories of marriages, friendships, workplaces, Thanksgiving dinners divided by the fight that began in February 2011, when Mr. Walker announced plans to cut benefits and strip collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
Winning this election may be less a matter of convincing undecided voters, if there are any, than of getting people to the polls. The splintering that started when Mr. Walker cut bargaining rights has seeped into other issues: austere budget choices; a voter ID law; removal of a law that allowed people to seek punitive and compensatory damages in state court over employment discrimination; efforts to encourage iron ore mining,
Among the voters, the sides are stark and, more than a year after tens of thousands of protesters marched around the State Capitol in Madison, surprisingly raw.
“We don’t want the state taken over by the Koch brothers,” said Mary Jean Nicholls, a former teacher, referring to Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists who are among Mr. Walker’s supporters.
Craig Dedo, a computer consultant and Walker supporter, said the race boiled down to one question: Who runs Wisconsin? “The Democrats and the unions, who are the takers?” he asked, “or the Republicans, the party of the private sector and the people who pay the bills?”