Scott Bauer, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. — 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 bitterly yet 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. Officials also reported long lines at many Milwaukee voting centers, and state elections officials predict 60 percent to 65 percent of eligible voters will turn out.
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 and I'm not big on recall as a piece of political action," Van Wagner said.
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.
Jerry Darda, a 73-year-old retired state employee in Madison, said early Tuesday that he "voted for the man, Scott."
Darda called the recall process "ridiculous" and said Walker should be able to finish his job. Darda, who called himself a fiscal conservative who has supported Democrats in the past, also voted for Walker in 2010.
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.
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