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Wisconsin recall: Why Democrats think Barrett can beat Walker this time

Democrats in Wisconsin chose Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, to challenge Gov. Scott Walker (R) in a recall election next month. It's a reprise of their 2010 contest, but now Walker has a record to defend.

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Walker is attacking Barrett, too, on the jobs issue, saying Milwaukee’s unemployment rate rose 28 percent over the past eight years even as property taxes in the city jumped 25 percent. He is championing his bid to curb collective bargaining rights, saying it helped to save state taxpayers $1 billion and prevented a tax increase during his first year in office. 

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Walker did not mention Barrett by name late Tuesday in remarks to supporters in Waukesha, Wis. “The powerful special interests don't like the fact that I stood up and got in the way of their firm grip on the taxpayers' money. Instead, I stand with the taxpayers of this state,” he said.

Barrett has been the presumptive nominee for weeks, after polls showed him more likely to give Walker a tight race than Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive and his closest competitor.

As mayor, Barrett has often had a contentious relationship with labor unions. Their support in the primary largely went to Ms. Falk. The two candidates differed on how they would restore collective bargaining rights – Falk said she would veto any state budget that didn’t restore them, while Barrett said it would be more appropriate to hold a special session to vote on the issue.

With Barrett as the Democratic nominee, labor unions are expected to shift their support to his campaign, says Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a political scientist at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis.

“In the end, the unions want Walker gone,” says Ms. Duerst-Lahti. “There is a lot of voter remorse among independents and moderate, conservative Democrats who voted for Walker last time, but we’re not in that spot anymore.”

Although Barrett polled better against Walker than Falk did, the recall race is expected to be tight. According to Marquette’s polling, Walker leads Barrett by one percentage point among likely voters.

The division among the electorate suggests that the outcome is in the hands of independents.

“Even though this really does appear to be, in a lot of ways, a rerun” of the first race between Walker and Barrett, “what has happened is that Walker and Barrett’s support hasn’t realigned in any way but things have simply polarized,” says Mr. McAdams.

Barrett won the primary with 58 percent of the vote to Falk's 34 percent. Secretary of State Doug La Follette received 4 percent, followed by state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout with 3 percent. Gladys Huber received less than 1 percent.

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