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Wisconsin recall will have wider impact

By Shannon Travis, CNN Political Reporter
updated 6:01 PM EDT, Thu May 3, 2012
The effort to recall Wisconsin's GOP Gov. Scott Walker pits conservatives against labor unions.
The effort to recall Wisconsin's GOP Gov. Scott Walker pits conservatives against labor unions.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Powerful forces are lining up behind the two sides in the Scott Walker recall effort
  • Gergen: The recall election will be seen as a test of the tea party's strength in Wisconsin
  • The recall battle pits fiscally conscious conservatives against labor unions
  • At the center is a highly sought after voting bloc: blue-collar workers

(CNN) -- When voters in Wisconsin decide whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker next month, they'll also be shaping the dialogue going into the fall.

The recall vote is considered the first major one in this presidential election year and powerful forces are lining up behind the two sides in the debate over whether taxpayers should fund public worker unions' collective bargaining rights.

The recall election "will be seen as a test of tea party strength in Wisconsin," CNN senior political analyst David Gergen said. "And if Walker were to lose, there would be many interpretations that the tea party has lost some of its punch."

The tea party has staunchly supported Walker's reforms and has campaigned across the state to keep him in office.

"On the other hand, if he were to win, let's say by five points or more, then it's going to reinforce the notion of the tea party as... very powerful in Wisconsin," Gergen said.

And Gergen summed up how unions in Wisconsin and beyond would interpret a victory.

"There's no question to me that if the forces of the recall succeed, it's going to encourage the union folks to feel like if they just turn it out, they really turn it on, they can win majorities," Gergen said.

"I think the winning side is going to be really energized by it."

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On one side of the issue, Republicans and tea party activists argue that a key way to trim out-of-control state government spending and deficits is by targeting collective bargaining rights.

Powerful labor unions and their Democratic allies believe such measures impose unfair financial burdens on workers and that Republican efforts against collective bargaining are veiled attempts to gut labor unions, a traditionally Democratic constituency.

At the center is a highly sought voting bloc: blue-collar workers. Though they also care deeply about jobs and economic growth, the fight over bargaining rights will surely be a factor in how they vote in the fall.

Among the most prominent voices is David Koch, the billionaire businessman behind Koch Industries along with brother, Charles Koch. Their Wichita, Kansas-based company is the second largest privately-held company in the United States.

The Koch brothers rank No. 4 on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the U.S. and staunchly promote free markets with dramatically less taxes and fewer regulations. Critics accuse the brothers of promoting their own business interests.

The Kochs also promote tea party ideals. One Koch-funded group, tea party booster Americans for Prosperity, has vigorously campaigned for Walker in Wisconsin.

In February, David Koch talked to the Palm Beach Post about his efforts to support the embattled governor.

"We're helping him, as we should," Koch is quoted as saying. "We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more."

"What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. He's an impressive guy and he's very courageous," Koch said. "If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power."

Labor organizations are fighting back. A Wisconsin group affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees posted on its website, regarding the governor, "He has not once acknowledged the pain he has inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites with regard to the stripping of collective bargaining ... and the most obvious damage to Wisconsinites, polarization."

The Wisconsin Education Association Council posted on its site: "After nearly a year of attacks on our profession, historic and devastating cuts to our schools and an extreme agenda dividing our state, now is the time -- it's time to recall Governor Walker."

Americans for Prosperity and their supporters as well as labor unions and their allies are taking advantage of the 2010 landmark Supreme Court campaign finance ruling that found the "government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity," freeing up corporations and unions to use their vast resources to have a say in elections.

So far, the competing sides have spent an estimated $6 million on over 17,000 ads in the state, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

Similar debates over collective bargaining have played out in states like New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- states that will play a role in the presidential election.

Polls taken while the issue was first debated in states last year showed a majority of Americans opposed to the stripping of collective bargaining rights for public workers.

In Ohio last November, a controversial law limiting those rights went down in flames -- repealed in a voter referendum, 62%-38%.

With the stakes so high, other prominent voices have weighed in.

In September, President Obama spoke about the issue as he unveiled his jobs plan during a joint session of congress.

"I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy," the president said.

Days before that speech, Obama told workers at a Detroit Labor Day event, "When I hear some of this talk I know this is not about economics. This is about politics. And I want everybody here to know, as long as I'm in the White House I'm going to stand up for collective bargaining."

On the other hand, Mitt Romney has expressed support for the conservative position.

Days before Ohio's referendum vote, Romney said, "I support Question 2 and (Ohio) Gov. Kasich's effort to restrict collective bargaining in Ohio in the ways he's described."

One day before, Romney expressed generic support for the governor's efforts -- and did not specifically throw his support behind the Ohio bill.

But Wisconsin has been the focal point of the movement, with noisy demonstrations around its Capitol, legislators fleeing the state in order to cause votes to be canceled and now voters will decide if Republican Walker overreached in stripping unions of a key tool.

On Tuesday, during a full-throated day of campaigning with fellow Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Walker likened the recall election to a battle between "the hard-working taxpayers" versus "a limited number of big-government union bosses."

Christie uses GOP star power to help embattled Walker

Christie said, "All the eyes of America, for the next five weeks, are going to be on the state of Wisconsin."

Gergen sees another issue in the debate:

"The second issue, which I think is the bigger issue in some ways, especially for November, I think it's going to play out in both Wisconsin and Ohio in the general election and that is: Have these two Republican governors and their legislative allies overplayed their hands?"

Citing Ohio's importance to the presidential contest, Gergen again referenced the defeated Ohio law.

"What it also did was it painted (Ohio Gov.) Kasich, and I think Walker has also been painted as sort of more extreme or more controversial, and that has opened the door for President Obama to possibly sweep both states," Gergen said. "We'll have to wait and see."

For Walker, the stakes are more personal.

"If Walker pulls this off, then a lot of conservatives are going to say, 'He was a man of great courage, he took this on and he won,'" Gergen said.

"But if he loses, that's a different proposition. You draw different political conclusions. So that's why it's a very important test."

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