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The Globe and Mail

Wisconsin's labour battle may have nation-wide repercussions

In an April 17, 2012 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to the Illinois Chamber of Commerce in Springfield, Ill.

Seth Perlman/AP

No state embodies the new normal in American politics perhaps as perfectly as Wisconsin. A place once known for cows, cheeseheads and peaceable politics is now torn in two by an ideological battle that has the both the right and left in this divided country taking notes.

Governor Scott Walker has turned Wisconsin into a Petri dish for the kind of Republican politics the billionaire ideologues backing him would like to replicate across the country.

After winning office in 2010, the Tea Party-backed governor began a frontal assault on the state's public-sector unions, stripping them of most of their collective-bargaining rights and sapping their ability to raise money.

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For a while it looked like it would backfire terribly. Emboldened by its success in repealing a similar anti-labour law in Ohio last fall, the U.S. union movement went after an even bigger prey in Mr. Walker. But its bid to oust the governor in a June 5 recall election seems to have gone off the rails and Democrats are nervous about what that means for President Barack Obama in November.

"It looks like the public here is not quite willing to say Walker went too far," offered Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Wisconsinites view there being an inequality between public-sector unions and private-sector unions and see Walker as having remedied some of that."

By his own account, however, Mr. Walker has done so through a divide-and-conquer strategy. Since he introduced his labour-reform legislation in early 2011, sparking weeks of protests inside the state legislature, the 44-year-old son of a Baptist preacher has raised a whopping $25-million (U.S.), more than half of it from outside Wisconsin. The money has financed some of the most effective attack ads anywhere.

Mr. Walker's benefactors include oil magnate David Koch and Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino billionaire who single-handedly bankrolled the Super PAC that kept Newt Gingrich's campaign alive during his bid for the GOP nomination.

Outside groups, such as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governors Association, have also been pumping millions into Wisconsin, occupying the air waves Mr. Walker hasn't already saturated with anti-union advertising. It appears to be working.

The situation is the opposite of what occurred last fall in Ohio, where the union movement forced a ballot initiative to repeal Republican Governor John Kasich's labour legislation. There, labour had the cash advantage as resources poured in from elsewhere.

The outcome of that ballot – the repeal side won with 60 per cent of the vote – heartened Democrats. The Tea Party forces that brought Mr. Kasich, Mr. Walker and others to office in 2010 were dealt a blow as voters rebelled against their extremism.

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The Obama campaign machine played a major role in the Ohio battle, providing personnel and organizational expertise to the union side. The vote was seen as a test run for the 2012 presidential campaign in a state critical to winning the White House.

Success in Ohio also led the labour movement and its Democratic allies to go after Mr. Walker. They collected almost 900,000 signatures, in a state with fewer than four million voters, to force the recall election that would make Mr. Walker only the third U.S. governor to be removed from office through such a procedure.

But if voters in Ohio punished Republicans for overreaching with their anti-union legislation, electors in Wisconsin appear to think it is labour that has gone too far now.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state's largest newspaper, endorsed Mr. Walker on May 19. It concluded that "disagreement over a single policy is simply not enough to justify a vote against the governor. … He deserves a chance to complete his term."

Should Mr. Walker lose on June 5, it likely would not be because of his policies as governor. Rather, Democrats are trying to tie him to a corruption scandal involving colleagues he served with when he was the top elected official in Milwaukee County.

The man seeking to replace Mr. Walker as governor, Milwaukee Democratic Mayor Tom Barnett, has vowed to "end the ideological civil war" that has engulfed the state. But few analysts see that happening any time soon.

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If Mr. Walker survives, as the polls predict he will, Wisconsin will be in play in the fall presidential race. Likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney could become the first Republican to win the state, and its 10 electoral votes, since Ronald Reagan prevailed in 1984.

Only a few months ago, the Obama campaign considered Wisconsin a lock. After all, he won it by double digits in 2008. But that was before rich Republican backers were freed by the Supreme Court to spend willy-nilly on elections.

With a record $2.5-billion expected to be spent, this presidential race, in Wisconsin and beyond, will be anything but civil.

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