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It's Recall Time for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

On November 15, a grassroots effort to recall the controversial governor kicks off. Can it succeed?

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 7:00 AM EST

In late September, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin met with staffers from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in a bright conference room with a view of the state Capitol in Madison. He sensed disappointment in the room. That summer, the party had forced recall elections for six Republican state senators but unseated just two of them—one short of retaking control of the majority. Maslin's reason for visiting was to discuss his new poll for a different recall effort, one targeting the most controversial man in Wisconsin: Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Ninety percent of those from both parties polled said they'd vote in a Walker recall election, with 77 percent of those saying they'd "definitely" vote. The energy is there, Maslin told the staffers. And so, more crucially, was the anger: 51 percent said they'd vote for Walker's opponent, while just 42 percent said they'd vote for Walker. The governor could be beaten, Maslin suggested.

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Maslin tried to rouse the staffers with a historical analogy. He asked who had heard of Dieppe; the response was crickets. Dieppe, Maslin explained, was a French port controlled by the Germans during World War II. In August 1942, Allied forces launched an amphibious assault and aerial raid on Dieppe, only to be routed with heavy casualties. But the Dieppe disaster, Maslin went on, was a prelude to a larger victory. Lessons learned there helped the Allies succeed on D-Day two years later and go on to win the war.

When asked later about the analogy, Maslin says he wasn't comparing Walker or the Republicans to the Germans. "My point was, the Senate recalls were never the final deal," he says. "In terms of what people are thinking in the state, it's always been about Walker. Those are the bumper stickers you're seeing Madison and Milwaukee. That's always been the topic of conversation: Scott Walker, Scott Walker." He added: "The real thing is W-Day—that's the real fight."

That fight begins at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday with the launch of the official Walker recall campaign. Organizers have 60 days to collect at least 540,208 signatures to trigger a recall election for Walker. (Another 540,208 additional signatures are needed to recall Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.) The grassroots groups spearheading the recall effort under the "United Wisconsin" banner say they hope to collect as many as 700,000 or 800,000 signatures by mid-January. That's roughly 12,000 or 13,000 a day. If they do, it will set up a bruising, cash-flooded, two-month recall campaign next spring, and an actual election between early April and early June, depending on legal challenges and potential primary races on either the Democratic or Republican side.

The first inkling of a Walker recall appeared last winter, with the introduction of the governor's controversial "budget repair" bill. The bill curbed bargaining rights for most of the state's public-sector unions—a policy Walker never mentioned on the campaign trail. The move curtailed wage increases, and it made it harder for unions to collect dues and recertify each year. His threat to sic the National Guard on would-be protesters of the bill badly backfired, only stoking the bubbling unrest. In the weeks after, teachers staged "sick-outs," unions rallied their members, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets surrounding the state Capitol, and thousands more occupied the Capitol rotunda for more than two weeks. In the end, though, Walker and Republican legislators prevailed, and he signed his "repair" bill into law in March.

That was just the beginning. Walker's full budget, passed in June, closed a two-year shortfall of $3 billion by slashing almost $800 million from public schools, trimming tax credits for the poor, rewriting state pension law while cutting investment and corporate taxes. He passed a controversial voter ID bill that critics say disenfranchises students and seniors, and signed two GOP-friendly redistricting bills. Also looming large is a John Doe investigation into possible campaigning by employees for Milwaukee County while on the clock when Walker was the county executive. (Eleven people have been granted immunity in the probe.) In September, the investigation captured national headlines when the home of a close Walker aide, Cynthia Archer, was raided by FBI agents.

Today, Wisconsin is as divided as it was during the fight over Walker's "repair" bill. In August, the left-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 93 percent of Democrats disliked Walker and 87 percent of Republicans liked him. His overall approval rating remains mediocre, with 47 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving, according to an October PPP survey (PDF). Another October poll, by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), found that Walker's standing has barely changed since late February and March.

PPP's and WPRI's surveys detected a similar split on recalling Walker—48 percent of respondents favored it and 49 percent opposed in PPP's poll, while WPRI reported a 47-49 split. But Maslin, who worked as former California Gov. Gray Davis' pollster during his own recall election (which led to his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger), dismissed these findings as the work of "fly-by-night cheap pollsters." He repeated his belief that Walker is vulnerable and said that his experience in California convinced him that Walker has only a five- or six-week window to win over angry voters before their attitudes are frozen in place as the recall effort ramps up.

"The very things that are vexing Obama, or the things that are hurting the Republican brand in Congress, is the fact that nothing is working well anywhere," Maslin says. "Can Walker somehow regain public confidence that he's the one doing things right?"

Grassroots—for Better or Worse

By day, Julie Wells drives a forklift at a factory in Fort Atkinson. Nights and weekends, she spends her time building the movement to convince voters that Scott Walker needs to go. Wells, 52, is the Jefferson County co-coordinator for United Wisconsin, the grassroots effort to gather signatures to recall Walker. Wells finds volunteers, trains signature collectors, and organizes sign-painting parties in her mostly white, politically moderate county.

United Wisconsin's five-member board and 100 county-level coordinators are almost all volunteers (it has two and a half paid positions). It has received more than 4,000 donations to date, 89 percent from in-state donors. The average donation is $40. More notably, United Wisconsin has already gathered more than 200,000 pledges to sign a Walker recall petition and signed up 7,000 volunteers for the signature-gathering effort.

While United Wisconsin's grassroots nature gives it credibility, it has also come off as amateurish. At a mid-October press conference officially announcing the recall effort, the group's co-chairs struggled to answer basic questions: What's your strategy? What's your message? How big is your organization? When do you think the election would be?

Kevin Straka, one of the group's co-chairs, says it has gotten more savvy, and that its message is simple: Walker's assault on unions, public education, and voting rights is an "injustice." United Wisconsin will partner with anyone, Straka says, who will help it achieve its singular mission: kicking Walker out of office. "We won't sign onto anyone's agenda, but if their goal is that mission, we welcome them to join us," he says.

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