Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has won the Democratic primary in Wisconsin, in the state’s recall election to face Republican Gov. Scott Walker, for what could very well be the second-most crucial and closely watched race in the country this year, behind only the presidential campaign.
With 27 percent of precincts reporting, Barrett has 54 percent, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk 38%, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout 4%, and Secretary of State Doug La Follette 3%. Barrett has been projected as the winner by the Associated Press. The general election will be held on June 5.
The recall movements in Wisconsin were sparked in large part by Walker’s surprise legislation last year, to roll back almost all collective bargaining for public employees, and has since encompassed other issues such as the economy. Democrats attempted to recall their way to a majority last year, needing to pick up three seats, but instead came up just short by gaining two. In addition to the gubernatorial recalls, there are further recalls going on for lieutenant governor, and four more state Senate seats.
Barrett’s primary win sets up a rematch from 2010, and a test of whether the Tea Party wave of 2010 has receded. He was the Democratic nominee against Walker in 2010, losing by a 52%-47% margin in that Republican year.
The TPM Poll Average for the general election currently gives Walker an edge over Barrett of 48.7 to 46.6 percent, based entirely on pre-primary surveys, in a race that has clearly gone back and forth.
Barrett previously ran for governor in 2002, after having served in the U.S. House of Representatives for ten years. He came in second place: Jim Doyle 38%, Tom Barrett 34%, and Kathleen Falk 27%. He then came back in 2004, getting elected as Mayor of Milwaukee. Doyle won the 2002 general election, was re-elected in 2006, and retired in 2010, when Barrett became the unsuccessful Democratic candidate.
During this primary, Barrett had the support of most Democratic elected officials, while Falk had the support of most of organized labor. (Though to be clear, some officials are supporting Falk, and some unions are for Barrett.) Barrett’s own campaign pitch was based around being a consensus-builder who would end what he called the “civil war” in Wisconsin, which he said resulted from Walker’s confrontational politics.
In addition, he took the classic frontrunner’s tack of training his rhetorical fire entirely on Walker, rather than get caught up in attacks between fellow Democrats, such as at the Dem candidates’ final debate last week.
In addition, the Walker campaign proceeded largely on the assumption that Barrett would be the nominee, such as a TV ad on Monday targeting him exclusively. And also on Tuesday night, the state GOP prematurely released their official statement attacking him as the nominee, before the polls closed.
At the same time, though, the major state public employee unions lined up almost solidly behind Falk, notably AFSCME and the teachers union WEAC, owing in part to Barrett’s feuds with the unions on city issues. Indeed, AFSCME launched online attacks on Barrett, distributing the link to a YouTube video (which they did not produce themselves) using selectively edited audio of Barrett, to give the impression that he supported Walker’s policies.
In the end, though, the state’s Democratic voters have stuck with Barrett — which could potentially inoculate him from the charge of being overly beholden to the union, an accusation to which some elected officials had said Falk left herself open.
Ed note: Reporter Eric Kleefeld was a volunteer in 2002 for Barrett’s gubernatorial campaign in the Democratic primary that year, in which Kathleen Falk was also a candidate. He has not had any additional political involvement with Barrett since that time.