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Will Scott Walker's Recall Give Tom Barrett His Revenge?

The Milwaukee mayor may have the best chance of beating Wisconsin's controversial governor, but Barrett and Walker share a common foe—the state's biggest unions.

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

What he lacks in big-name union endorsements Barrett makes up for with the support of popular Wisconsin Democrats. Obey, Sen. Herb Kohl, Rep. Ron Kind, and former Rep. Steve Kagen have all endorsed him, saying he's the best candidate to beat Walker. If elected governor, Barrett says he'll call a special session to restore the bargaining rights stripped away by Walker and Republican members of Wisconsin's Legislature. And if that doesn't work, he'll push for new legislation with the same intent.

What Wisconsin needs even more, Barrett insists, is a governor who won't further divide Wisconsin (if that's possible), someone who can rebuild the relationships between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. "In February 2011 [Walker] dropped the bomb on this state, and Wisconsin has been in a state of political civil war ever since," he says. "I'm the guy who can stop the civil war."

Friends and allies say Barrett's composed attitude and calm temperament make him an ideal governor in these divided times. "He's a real statesman," says former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who recently endorsed Barrett. "Wisconsin is desperate for a little calmness and dignity."

Barrett does have a feistier side, which came out as he discussed Scott Walker's jobs record in a recent interview. Walker is failing Wisconsin's economy, he says, and won't get close to meeting his pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first four years in office. In 2011, Wisconsin lost 21,000 public- and private-sector jobs. "By starting an ideological war, he took his eye off the very thing he promised," Barrett says.

There is more than just the big unions working against Barrett. Barrett was the last of four Democrats to enter the field to run against Walker. And he is not a favorite of the activists and organizers who ignited the 2011 protests over Walker's anti-union Act 10 bill, the die-hards who marched on the state capital building and occupied the rotunda for two weeks. In an op-ed, Alex Hanna and Mike Amato, top officials with the Teacher Assistants Association, the union that spearheaded the 2011 occupation, rapped Barrett for not doing enough about unemployment and economic growth in Milwaukee. They endorsed Falk. (TAA as a whole has not endorsed anyone.)

Yet Barrett remains a popular figure across Wisconsin. A recent recall poll, released by the Marquette University Law School on March 27, shows Barrett leading Falk 36 to 29 in a Democratic primary match-up. (Barrett had not yet announced his candidacy at the time of the poll.) Although his recall campaign may have gotten a late start, allies and critics say Barrett benefits from having more name recognition and popularity than Falk. "I have been in over 20 counties around the state in the past six or seven months, and I have yet to find more than literally a handful of people who don't think Tom Barrett is the strongest candidate," Obey says.

That popularity, Obey continues, is crucial now that Walker and his supporters have begun attacking Democrats. "The fact is, I think Tom is better positioned to withstand the attacks that will be made on him than [Falk] is."

A few unions have officially endorsed Barrett, including the Amalgamated Transit Union, Operating Engineers Local 317, and Iron Workers District Council of North Central States. In the Public Policy Polling's February survey and Marquette's March poll, Barrett wins more support among union members and union households than Falk does. Which is to say, Falk may have won the most union-wide endorsements, but rank-and-file members are far from unanimous in their support of her. (Scot Ross, a spokesman for Falk, questions PPP's and Marquette's findings and says the campaign's internal polling shows Falk leading Barrett in union support.)

The polls are less kind to Barrett in a hypothetical rematch with Walker. Marquette's March poll puts Walker ahead by two percentage points, 47 to 45, though that's within the four-point margin of error. But with the GOP super-PACs, Americans for Prosperity, and wealthy conservative donors pledging their support to Walker, Barrett knows that whomever faces Walker is in for a bloody, bruising fight. Yet he's still eager to face off with Walker once again. "Any of you seen that movie Groundhog Day?" he joked on Wednesday at a backyard fundraiser in Madison. He waited a beat, then added: "But remember, that movie had a happy ending."

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