Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker faces recall drive. California redux?

A petition drive to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin officially begins Tuesday. The recall drive is part of the continued fallout from Wisconsin's collective-bargaining law. 

By , Staff writer

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    Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., in this file photo from last year. The effort to recall the Walker is expected to begin Tuesday, although his opponents have yet to come up with a candidate to replace him.
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The latest Wisconsin recall drive could apparently be named “Anybody but Walker.”

Democrats have not yet found a candidate to oppose Gov. Scott Walker (R), but they are pressing ahead with their campaign to recall him. A petition drive begins Tuesday. The campaign marks the continued fallout from the controversial 2011 bill that stripped most public employee unions of their collective-bargaining rights.

The recall drive could be fraught with difficulties for both sides. Democrats will have to be wary of blaming Governor Walker for the troubled economy, given that they will have to defend President Obama against the same charge.

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Meanwhile, Walker must attempt to head off any perception that he is a lame-duck governor, or momentum against him could build, says Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked for former California Gov. Gray Davis (D), who was recalled in 2003.

The recall effort launches a week after voters in Ohio repealed a similar but harsher collective-bargaining law. The repeal has galvanized anti-Walker forces in Wisconsin, which has long been seen as ground zero for the broader Republican push to curtail union rights as a way to trim state budgets.

In a preview of the campaign against Walker, state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate wrote in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign was deceptive.

Once in office, he said, Walker violated “the public’s trust by ramming through legislation that degrades the state’s standards and traditions, shows increasingly bad management skills and panders to special interests at the expense of the people.”

Walker became eligible for a recall this month because it marks the beginning of Walker’s second year in office, and Wisconsin law bans recalling governors during their first year. To get a recall election on the ballot, opponents need 540,208 signatures – or one-quarter of the 2.2 million votes cast in the November 2010 election – by Jan. 17.

The recall drive also targets Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican senators. If the petition drive succeeds, the election is expected in May.

To pollster Mr. Maslin, Walker needs to hit back at opponents quickly. Recall elections create a momentum of their own, he adds.

After signatures were collected and a recall election date was set in California in 2003, Governor Davis faced an uphill battle in persuading voters he needed to keep his job, says Maslin, a Democratic pollster and campaign strategist in Madison, Wis.

“Everything froze in terms of public opinion. Davis could have walked on water and it would not have changed his popularity numbers,” he says. Similarly, “Walker has a narrow window. If he doesn’t start changing minds, it will get much tougher.

“If [Walker] hadn’t been so controversial and gone so far in cutting off collective bargaining rights and so partisan, he could say ‘I’m only a year and a half into this job,’ but I think it will be hard for him to argue that,” Maslin adds.

Democrats are banking on voters perceiving the Walker recall as an issue uniquely removed from the national economic struggle. But Republicans say the economy is something they can exploit by tying it to Mr. Obama and his policies.

“The president’s numbers being in the ditch, [just like] the economy, is going to help our chances up and down the ticket.… When you have the top of the ticket not doing well … it affects everything,” he told the Journal-Sentinel this week.

A late October poll conducted by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., found Walker had a 47 percent approval rating, with about 51 percent disapproving of his job performance.

Walker opponents have yet to produce a replacement candidate. Among those under consideration are Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, US Rep. Dave Obey, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, retiring US Sen. Herb Kohl, and former US Sen. Russ Feingold.

Both US senators have said they have no plan to run for public office next year. Congressman Obey is testing the waters as a possible candidate if Senator Kohl or Mayor Barrett decides not to run. 

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