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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 6:00 AM EST

Marc Tasman/Wikimedia CommonsMarc Tasman/Wikimedia CommonsJoining them is the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The DPW will act as the clearinghouse for all the recall signatures, collecting and processing them as they come in. The DPW also launched "Recall Walker HQ," which includes a volunteer sign-up, events calendar, a map of 23 different recall office locations, and a list of "Walker's failures" ("deception," "corruption," "cronyism," and "incompetence," to name a few). The DPW's recall Walker fundraising page lists a goal of $60,000; by the end of Friday, $56,596 had been raised. The party has also trained signature gatherers.

And then there are the state's labor unions, which were the driving force behind the massive protests in Madison last winter. Labor leaders say their members are fully behind the recall effort and are encouraged to get involved any way they can. Bryan Kennedy, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, says his union recently unanimously voted to support the recall effort. "Basically, we're telling our members, 'This is our No. 1 priority,'" he says. "We're making sure that the union is front and center to our members in the recall of Walker."

The Challenger

Privately, labor leaders, Democratic party officials, and other Wisconsin politicos say they're confident United Wisconsin and its allies will gather enough signatures to recall Walker. Even Brad Courtney, the chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said last month that Walker opponents would get their recall election.

But unlike Ohio's recent union fight, this won't be a yes-or-no referendum on a controversial bill. This will be Scott Walker against…some Democrat.

Who that Democrat will be makes all the difference. Do Walker foes pick a lawmaker with decades of experience, like outgoing US Sen. Herb Kohl, a wealthy businessman with name recognition, or former congressman David Obey, the gruff, tough moderate who represented Wisconsin's 7th District for 41 years? Do they rally behind a more local figure like Dane County executive Kathleen Falk? Or a fresh face like Mahlon Mitchell? The young president of Wisconsin's firefighters union, Mitchell exploded onto the state's political scene last winter with his inspirational speeches rallying foes of Walker's "repair" bill even it wouldn’t affect cops and firefighters. As Mother Jones first reported on October 27, Mitchell says he is "strongly considering a run" against Walker in a potential recall election and will decide whether to run "very soon."

The most competitive candidate in a Walker recall election, according Maslin's internal polling, is Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, the man Walker beat in 2010. In Maslin's poll, Barrett beat Walker 51 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical recall held in September. A former five-term US congressman, Barrett enjoys wide support in Milwaukee, where he has served as mayor since April 2004. In 2008, he cruised to reelection with 79 percent of the vote—the most support received by a Milwaukee mayoral candidate in four decades.

Barrett, who faces reelection next spring, has been mum about another run. A source close to the mayor, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, says Barrett's 2010 loss to Walker is seen not as a drawback but in fact as his biggest weapon in a potential recall. "He can say, 'I ran against this guy last year, I warned you all, now we need a do-over,'" the source says. Barrett's decision, the source continues, will hinge on whether that polling advantage seen in Maslin's September poll is still there in January, when the recall signatures are turned in. "He's going to want to see a pathway to victory," the source says, "and if the polling's not there, then he'll get behind whoever the best candidate is."

A Money Torrent

The biggest factor in the Walker recall may not be the Democratic candidate but money. Thanks to a quirk in Wisconsin state law, Walker can accept unlimited donations for his recall war chest until the Government Accountability Board, the state election watchdog, picks an election date. That date might be settled until February or March, giving Walker months to rake in donations. What's more, a Walker donor filed a phony recall petition on November 4, giving Walker a week-and-a-half head start to raise funds before the serious recall effort begins.

Walker has said that raising a prodigious amount of money is central to his recall defense, according to Courtney, chair of the Wisconsin GOP. At an event last month in Milwaukee, as Mother Jones first reported, Courtney told the audience, "What Scott says is we're gonna raise a lot of money—we can accept unlimited money for a 60-day time period, so you're gonna see a lot of positive, wonderful ads about what's going on in Wisconsin."

Last summer's state Senate recall elections gave a glimpse of just how much money deluge could flood in. Total spending in the nine recalls reached $44 million, more than double the previous record set in 2008, when $20.25 million was spent on 115 legislative races. Six of the nine races smashed the previous spending record of $3 million for a single state Senate race. Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in state politics, says he's hearing people say $100 million could be spent in a recall. (In contrast, just $37 million was spent in the Walker-Barrett 2010 gubernatorial race.) McCabe declined to break down how much of that money would be spent by left- and right-leaning groups—Republicans were slightly outspent in the summer recalls—but suggested that Walker would likely dominate the spending war.

"Scott Walker's going to be rolling in cash," McCabe says. Exactly how much is anyone's guess. "I don't you can look at any past election for governor," he says, "and in any way predict what might happen in this upcoming election for governor."

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