MADISON, Wis. (AP) — After a brief but bruising campaign that followed a more than yearlong fight over union rights and the state's cash-strapped budget, voters in a narrowly divided Wisconsin began casting ballots Tuesday on whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
The first-term Republican was back on the ballot just 17 months after his election. Enraged Democrats and labor activists gathered more than 900,000 signatures in support of the recall after they failed to stop Walker and his GOP allies in the state legislature from stripping most public employees of their union right to collectively bargain.
Walker faces a rematch with Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom he beat in 2010 by 5 percentage points, as he tries to become the first U.S. governor to successfully fend off a recall.
"I've been villainized for a year and a half. We've faced a year and a half of assaults on us. My opponent has no plans other than to attack us," Walker said at a campaign stop Monday, claiming that his agenda has put the state on the right economic track.
Responded Barrett: "Gov. Walker has divided the state, but we will never allow him to conquer the middle class. This started out as a grassroots movement and it's going to end as one."
Walker and his wife, Tonette, were among those waiting in line to vote in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa as polls opened at 7 a.m. His Democratic challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett cast his vote at the Milwaukee French Immersion school.
State elections officials have predicted that 60 percent to 65 percent of eligible voters will turn out. Government Accountability Board statistics show that 49.7 percent turned out for the 2010 Walker-Barrett race.
William Van Wagner, a 21-year-old student in Madison, waited in a line of about 30 people to cast his ballot for Walker.
"It's pretty clear that his policies have worked for us," Van Wagner said.
John Ipsen, 63, a mechanical engineer from Madison, said he opposed everything that Walker has done and that the rare recall — never before used against a Wisconsin governor — was clearly necessary.
"It's obviously not done very often so there's a good reason for it," Ipsen said after casting his vote for Barrett, whom he also supported in 2010.
The recall effort against Walker began bubbling last year, shortly after the former Milwaukee County executive successfully pushed through his union rights proposal, which also requires most state workers to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits.
Walker said that's what was needed to balance the state's budget. But Democrats and labor leaders saw it as a political tactic designed to gut the power of his political opposition. They rallied by the tens of thousands at the state Capitol in protest, but could not stop Republicans who control the state legislature from approving Walker's plans.
It didn't take long for opponents to begin calling for a recall.
The recall petition drive couldn't officially start until November, months after Walker's triumph at the legislature, because Wisconsin law requires that someone must be in office for at least a year before facing a recall. Organizers hit the streets a week before Thanksgiving and spent two months gathering more than 900,000 signatures — about 360,000 more than were needed to trigger the election. Barrett was chosen as Walker's opponent in a primary last month.
Now, Walker stands in unique company: He is only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall vote. The other two lost, most recently California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.
Not all public workers oppose Walker's moves.
"I believe what he's been doing is the right thing," said Greg Reiman, 55, who works for the Milwaukee County Department on Aging. "I'm paying the additional pension and health, and I'm fine with that."
William Dixon, 72, a self-employed woodworker from Whitefish Bay who voted for Barrett, said he was disgusted by Walker's collective bargaining policies.
"I don't think he's been truthful," Dixon said. Asking workers to pay more for benefits is one thing, "but I do think they have a right to bargain for wages," he said.
A key question Tuesday will be whether or not Democrats can turn out voters in force, as the unions did during the protests last year. Polls show there are few undecided voters; if it's close, it could come down to how well both do in swing counties in the western part of the state.
Walker, the 44-year-old son of a minister, has remained unflappable throughout the campaign just as he was during the massive protests that raged at the Statehouse for weeks as lawmakers debated his proposal. Along the way, he's become a star among Republicans and the most successful fundraiser in Wisconsin politics, collecting at least $31 million from around the country since taking office. That obliterated his fundraising record of $11 million from 2010.
Much of the money for the race has come from out of state. About $63 million has been spent on the race so far, including