EVANSVILLE, Wis – Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett began a final push Saturday to connect with voters in person before next week's historic recall election, appearing at farm breakfasts and restaurants and rallying campaign workers.
Walker is only the third U.S. governor to face a recall. The drive to oust him was spurred by anger over his plan to effectively end most public workers' collective bargaining rights. Walker insisted he had to make the move to balance the state budget, but Democrats portrayed the measure as an attack on organized labor.
Polls show a tight race with only a handful of voters still undecided before Tuesday's election, and Walker and Barrett have been struggling to win them over for the past month. Barrett released a new television ad Saturday, again calling on the governor to explain his role in an ongoing investigation of associates during Walker's tenure as Milwaukee County executive, but the candidates mostly used the day to meet voters.
Barrett, who serves as Milwaukee's mayor, spent the day on the other side of the state, starting with the Barron County Dairy Breakfast in Hillsdale, a burg of 1,250 people about 90 miles west of Minneapolis. The rest of his schedule included stops at a cafe in St. Croix Falls, a pizza joint in Superior and the state Democratic Party's office in Chippewa Falls.
"We're going to cover the whole state here in the next four days," Barrett said in a telephone interview. "I love it. This is the part that really gets your juices flowing. This is where I'm most confident, doing this."
Walker began his day before 7 a.m., serving food at a dairy breakfast on a massive farm just outside Evansville, a city of 5,000 people about 25 miles south of Madison, the state capital. His agenda called for a stop at another dairy breakfast in Monroe County before visiting campaign field offices in Hudson, Wausau, Green Bay and Wauwatosa.
"I feel good," Walker said. "We're not taking anything for granted. We're working all the way up to 8 p.m. on Tuesday."
Dressed in blue jeans, hiking boots and a button-down shirt and flanked by 18-year-old Evansville Future Farmers of America Queen Emily Templeton and 18-year-old La Prairie 4-H Club Queen Erica Ballmer, the governor handed out yogurt and applesauce to scores of people at the annual Rock County Dairy Breakfast.
A smiling Walker tried to engage people in short, friendly conversations, commenting, for example, on the beautiful morning. Most didn't seem to recognize him. They simply said "thank you" as he placed yogurt cups on their plates and moved on. A handful of people shook his hand, though, and congratulated him on his accomplishments.
One of them was Ken Pierson, 44, who runs a tool-and-die shop in Janesville with his father. He made a point of introducing his two sons to the governor. Later, he said he thinks Walker's changes will help the state in the long run and the recall isn't justified.
"There's better things to do, better reasons to go after people. It's just too obnoxious for me," Pierson said. "I see (Walker's fiscal conservatism) working in the future. It has more to do with what's going to happen tomorrow, instead of `gimme, gimme, gimme."'
The recall represents the latest chapter in a knockdown, no-holds barred political battle that has consumed the state.
The fight began in February 2011 when Walker introduced the collective bargaining measure. Tens of thousands of people descended on the state Capitol to demonstrate against the plan and minority Democrats in the state Senate fled to Illinois in a futile attempt to block a vote.
Republicans who controlled the Legislature pushed the plan through anyway. Democrats have been looking for payback ever since.
They ousted two GOP state senators in recalls last August and gathered enough signatures on recall petitions this winter to force Walker and four other Republican officeholders into Tuesday's elections.
The race between Walker and Barrett, especially, has evolved into a national referendum on union power. Republicans across the country have rallied around the governor, helping him raise a jaw-dropping $31 million in campaign cash.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Janesville Republican, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus appeared a tea party rally in Caledonia, just outside Racine, Saturday morning and implored hundreds in the crowd to get as many people to the polls as they can on Tuesday. They said a Walker win would segue into defeat for President Barack Obama in Wisconsin in November.
"This is an election that will send shockwaves throughout America," Ryan told the crowd. "It is a momentum maker or a momentum breaker."