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.
Many of those ballots have already been cast through absentee voting. Retired teacher Jan Stebbins cast her ballot early for Barrett, just as she did two years ago. She said she's been offended by Walker, not by what he's done but "how he's done it." Stebbins can't stand the division that's emerged during the past two years.
By Wednesday morning, she hopes the state "gets back to a little bit more unity," she said. "I don't know what will happen."
Todd Schober, a financial planner from Racine, voted for Walker in 2010 and planned to do so again Tuesday.
"I'm just going to be so glad when it's all over," he said.
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 $16 million from conservative groups such as the Republican Governors Association, Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association. The majority of Walker's donations are from people outside Wisconsin.
Democratic groups — including those funded by unions, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee — have poured in about $14 million, based on a tally from the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Barrett's $4.2 million in donations, meanwhile, were mostly from inside Wisconsin.
The race has attracted some big names on both sides. Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared on behalf of Walker, while former President Bill Clinton came out for Barrett in the race's final days. Notably absent was President Barack Obama. White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked during a briefing Monday why Obama wasn't campaigning in Wisconsin for Barrett.
"The president supports him, stands by him," Carney said, adding that Obama hopes Barrett prevails.
The president himself took to the social media micro-blogging site Twitter late Monday to send much the same message.
"It's Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow," Obama tweeted, "and I'm standing by Tom Barrett. He'd make an outstanding governor. -bo"
Barrett told CNN Tuesday morning that he doesn't feel ignored by the president: "Not one bit."
Walker won't be the only politician up for recall Tuesday. His lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and three Republican state senators also face recall votes Tuesday. A fourth state Senate seat will be determined after the Republican incumbent resigned rather than face the recall.
The recall will have implications for both labor unions and the presidential race in November. Labor unions have a lot at stake because they pushed so hard to force a recall. But when it comes to the presidential race, exactly what those implications are is unclear.
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Republicans are hopeful a Walker win will pave the way for Mitt Romney to win Wisconsin, making him the first GOP candidate to carry the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. If Walker loses, most agree Obama will have an edge. Either way, the state is likely to remain in play.
In the divided state, though, many are just ready for the seemingly endless campaigning to end. For months, voters have been inundated with telephone calls, campaign mail and television advertising. Barrett supporter John Oehrke is ready to be done.
"It doesn't really matter who wins I guess," Oehrke said. "It's all crazy."
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond in Fitchburg, Dinesh Ramde in Racine, and Brian Bakst in Janesville contributed to this report.