MADISON, Wis. – Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is showing signs of pulling ahead of the Democratic competition in the race to determine who faces Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election that has become a nationally watched battle over union rights.
Polls show Barrett with a lead less than two weeks before election day, and a labor group supporting his chief opponent, Kathleen Falk, recently pulled its television ads off the air. A state teachers union that backed Falk now says it will support whoever emerges from the Democratic primary on May 8.
"It's pretty clear that Tom Barrett is winning the Democratic primary, which is remarkable considering those who are driving this recall support a different candidate," said Mark Graul, a leading Republican strategist.
Barrett's strength suggests that the recall election, which has attracted heavy spending by liberal and conservative interest groups from across the nation, could be a rematch of the 2010 governor's race, in which Walker beat Barrett by 5 percentage points and then pressed a legislative initiative to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
Walker's move triggered huge protests and unions led the effort that forced Walker to face a recall ballot, but they haven't been able to make their favorite candidate his likely replacement in office.
Most of the state's major unions, including the statewide teacher union, have backed Falk, the former county executive from the liberal capital city of Madison. Traditional Democratic backers including the Sierra Club, immigrants' rights groups Voces de la Frontera and the Young Progressives of Wisconsin have also campaigned extensively for her. She has promised to veto any state budget that didn't restore public workers' bargaining rights.
Barrett, who has clashed with unions during his eight years as Milwaukee mayor, refused to make the same promise. But he is much better known across the state as the result of his 2010 campaign and is considered more acceptable to moderate Democrats.
The unions now face a predicament as Barrett appears to be leading the field. A Marquette University poll earlier this year showed him leading Falk 36 percent to 29 percent, and two recent polls have shown him with a solid lead. Two other Democratic candidates, longtime Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, have failed to gain traction.
Polls have indicated that the recall election in June should be close, with Walker appearing to hold a slight advantage over a Democratic opponent.
On Tuesday Barrett picked up significant backing from the statewide police union representing about 10,000 officers.
Falk's campaign maintains that the larger union organizations backing her will deliver heavy turnout both in the primary election and in the general election in June.
"Kathleen continues to travel around the state, she continues to gain support and she's the candidate who is best poised to defeat Gov. Walker because she has built the big tent," said Falk's spokesman Scot Ross. "That's the only way you're going to beat him."
Falk was active in circulating recall petitions against Walker after he launched his legislative budget initiative that curbed union bargaining rights. Falk, 60, served 14 years as Dane County executive before retiring in April 2011.
But some unions are beginning to hedge their bets. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide teachers' union, had endorsed Falk before voting last weekend to support whichever candidate emerges to take on Walker.
Russ Young, a history teacher who proposed the measure though he supports Falk, said union members must be realistic in light of Barrett's strength.
"When we started the recall effort it wasn't to elect Kathleen Falk," Young said. "We started the recall to get rid of Scott Walker."
Last week, WEAC and unions that had spent an estimated $3 million on Falk advertising stopped their TV ads. A spokesman, Michael Vaughn, said the organization will return to the air soon.
All three of the major candidates — Barrett, Falk and Walker — have blanketed the airwaves with ads. The Republican Governors Association and Walker both launched new spots Wednesday targeting Barrett.
In her campaign, Falk has started to attack Barrett more vigorously, stressing that she is the "only one" who took on Walker from the outset last year.
But former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, who is backing Barrett, said Wednesday that Democrats can't afford to weaken one another through attacks.
"It would be a suicide pact for people not to get together behind the winner in the primary," Obey said.