In Wisconsin, Romney and Santorum give governor, and recall, a wide berth

The recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker is the main issue on Wisconsin voters' minds, creating a host of obstacles for Romney and Santorum in the primary Tuesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker addresses workers at Technical Metal Specialists Inc. in Milwaukee, hours after a state elections board confirmed that a recall election against the Republican governor will go forward.
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As Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum rally voters in this state before Tuesday’s primary, their talking points hit many familiar themes – jobs, the economy, and health care. But one subject is more muted on the stump, even though it’s the issue voters in Wisconsin currently care most about: The recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature pushed through Governor Walker’s legislation weakening public sector unions more than a year ago, an agenda that brought more than 100,000 demonstrators to the state capital last winter. Polls show voters in the state are evenly split on whether or not Walker should be recalled from office.

While Tuesday’s voting will decide which Republican presidential candidate will receive the majority of Wisconsin’s 42 delegates, and collective media spending by both campaigns is into the millions of dollars, most voters here say the recall, set for June 5, is more on their minds.

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“It’s the real issue. It directly affects the politics in Wisconsin and will either help us or hurt us,” says Vicki, a Waukesha native who declined to give her last name.

John Hasse of Waukesha, who is retired, says he may not agree with Walker on certain issues, but finds the current recall effort “a waste of money and time.”

“That weighs more heavily on my mind than the primary, frankly,” he says.

For Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum, too close of an association with Walker could potentially backfire. Polls show 26 percent of Wisconsin households in 2010 included a union member, higher than the US average of 17 percent. That year Walker received 18 percent of his votes from union households.

“To forthrightly stand beside Scott Walker is probably a no-lose for either” presidential candidate, says John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee, who adds that supporting Walker “probably doesn’t mean it will win them a lot of votes” either.

The strategy for both presidential candidates is to separate the man from his policies. For example, both have endorsed Walker’s policies but neither has shared a public stage with the governor himself nor has asked for his endorsement. This is in contrast to other high-ranking Republicans in this state, including US Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and US Sen. Ron Johnson, both of whom are endorsing Romney.

Last week, Romney told supporters he agreed with Walker’s “effort to rein in the excess that have permeated the public-sector union and government negotiations over the years.”

Santorum framed Walker’s recall fight as similar to the uphill battles his campaign faced since the start of primary season. “There is no compromise with these folks. The governor did what he had to do. No matter what he was going to do … the other side goes nuclear,” Santorum said.

Having the recall dominate voters' minds in Wisconsin means potentially draining resources from get-out-the-vote efforts for the national candidates. Romney state chairman Ted Kanavas, a former Wisconsin state senator, says that for every Republican activist working for a Romney win there are about 30 involved in the Walker campaign. Romney’s campaign has one office open in the state; 21 are open for Walker.

“People are not focused on the presidential [primary],” Mr. Kanavas told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last week. “They are totally focused on the recall.”

In an effort to appeal to Wisconsin Republicans who support Walker’s efforts to curb union power, Romney is attacking Santorum’s voting record as a US senator, saying he voted against “right to work” legislation in Pennsylvania.

Santorum responded last week, saying his record in voting with AFL-CIO positions was 13 percent. “Calling Rick Santorum a big labor guy is like calling Mitt Romney a conservative,” he said.

But firing up the anti-union rhetoric could alienate voters in the general election, says Charles Franklin, polling director at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.

“Even if the GOP primary is skeptical of unions, that may not be the case possibly here in November,” Mr. Franklin says.

Efforts to curb union power have stalled in many Midwest states, particularly Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum that rescinded legislation that curbed union powers, including limitations on collective bargaining, signed into law by Republican Gov. John Kasich. Using the union issue in the Wisconsin primary, Franklin says, could create a liability the Obama campaign will use to its advantage in Wisconsin “and other swing states in the fall where primary-winning positions may not be winning issues.”

For his part, Walker has yet to endorse either candidate, telling the Associated Press last week he “can’t afford to be focused on anything” but his own reelection.

A more compelling reason may be making sure he doesn’t sabotage his own fundraising efforts, says Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a political scientist at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis.

“Walker says he needs to stay above the fray, but it also keeps his options more open to the kind of funding he needs down the line,” Ms. Duerst-Lahti says. “He’s going to need every Republican he can get when it gets down to the actual election.”

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