Following a brief but bruising campaign, both sides of the recall election targeting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are prepared for a razor-thin margin Tuesday as the Republican tries to become the first U.S. governor to successfully fend off a recall effort.
The vote will bring to a conclusion more than a year of turmoil after Walkerpushed through a bill stripping workers of collective bargaining rights in an effort to fix a hole in the state budget.
Polls have shown Walker, just 17 months into his term, with a small lead over Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett after a campaign that's shattered state spending records and further divided an already polarized state.
Both candidates worked in a flurry of last-minute stops in the campaign's final days, all too aware that turnout will be critical.
Officials reported long lines at many Milwaukee voting centers as polls opened Tuesday, the city's Elections Commission executive director Susan Edman said. State elections officials predict 60 percent to 65 percent of eligible voters will turn out.
Barrett applauded the high voter turnout, which was seen as critical to his hopes of unseating the governor in a race that has drawn tighter in closing days. "We've noted over the last 96 hours is, around the state, the energy has just been building and building and building," he said.
"I think most people are just happy to have the election over," Walker said as he voted in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. "I think most voters of the state want to have all the attack ads off. They want to have their TVs back. They want to have their lives back. "
In final campaigning Monday, Walker said Barrett had "no plans other than to attack us." The embattled governor claimed that his own campaign took a more positive approach, citing fiscal improvements resulting from his willingness to take on the state's public-employee unions. Barrett drew support from union members and supporters angered by Walker's moves to strip their collective bargaining rights.
"Governor Walker has divided the state but we will never allow him to conquer the middle class," Barrett said Monday. "This started out as a grassroots movement and it's going to end as one."
The recall effort began bubbling last year, shortly after the rising Republican star took office. Just a month into his first term, Walker took the state by surprise with a proposal to effectively end collective bargaining rights for most state workers and pay more for health insurance and pension benefits as a tactic to deal with the state's budget shortfall. The proposal created a firestorm of opposition, and protests drew tens of thousands to the state Capitol.
It didn't take long for opponents to begin calling for a recall.
The recall petition drive couldn't officially start until November, months after Walker signed the union changes into the books, because Wisconsin law requires that someone must be in office for at least a year before facing a recall. Organizers hit the streets a week before Thanksgiving and spent two months gathering more than 900,000 signatures — about 360,000 more than were needed to trigger the election. Barrett was chosen as Walker's opponent in a primary last month.
Now, Walker stands in unique company: He is only the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall vote. The other two lost, most recently California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.
Wisconsin's recall election is a rematch of the 2010 governor's race in which Walker defeated Barrett by 5 percentage points. A key question will be whether or not Democrats can turn out voters in force, as the unions did during the protests last year. Polls show there are few undecided voters; if it's close, it could come down to how well both do in swing counties in the western part of the state.
Many of those ballots have already been cast through absentee voting. Retired teacher Jan Stebbins cast her ballot early for Barrett, just as she did two years ago. She said she's been offended by Walker, not by what he's done but "how he's done it." Stebbins can't stand the division that's emerged during the past two years.
By Wednesday morning, she hopes the state "gets back to a little bit more unity," she said. "I don't know what will happen."
Todd Schober, a financial planner from Racine, voted for Walker in 2010 and planned to do so again Tuesday.
"I'm just going to be so glad when it's all over," he said.
Walker, the 44-year-old son of a minister, has remained unflappable throughout the campaign just as he was during the massive protests that raged at the Statehouse for weeks as lawmakers debated his proposal. Along the way, he's become a star among Republicans and the most successful fundraiser in Wisconsin politics, collecting at least $31 million from around the country since taking office. That obliterated his fundraising record of $11 million from 2010.
Much of the money for the race has come from out of state. About $63 million has been spent on the race so far, including $16 million from conservative groups such as the Republican Governors Association, Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association. The majority of Walker's donations are from people outside Wisconsin.
Democratic groups — including those funded by unions, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee — have poured in about $14 million, based on a tally from the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Barrett's $4.2 million in donations, meanwhile, were mostly from inside Wisconsin.
The race has attracted some big names on both sides. Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared on behalf of Walker, while former President Bill Clinton came out for Barrett in the race's final days. Notably absent was President Barack Obama. White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked during a briefing Monday why Obama wasn't campaigning in Wisconsin for Barrett.
"The president supports him, stands by him," Carney said, adding that Obama hopes Barrett prevails.
The president himself took to the social media micro-blogging site Twitter late Monday to send much the same message.
"It's Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow," Obama tweeted, "and I'm standing by Tom Barrett. He'd make an outstanding governor. -bo"
Barrett told CNN on Tuesday morning that he didn't feel ignored by Obama. "Not one bit," he said.
Walker won't be the only politician up for recall Tuesday. His lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and three Republican state senators also face recall votes. A fourth state Senate seat will be determined after the Republican incumbent resigned rather than face the recall.
The recall will have implications for both labor unions and the presidential racein November. Labor unions have a lot at stake because they pushed so hard to force a recall. But when it comes to the presidential race, exactly what those implications are is unclear.
Republicans are hopeful a Walker win will pave the way for Mitt Romney to win Wisconsin, making him the first GOP candidate to carry the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. If Walker loses, most agree Obama will have an edge. Either way, the state is likely to remain in play.
In the divided state, though, many are just ready for the seemingly endless campaigning to end. For months, voters have been inundated with telephone calls, campaign mail and television advertising. Barrett supporter John Oehrke is ready to be done.
"It doesn't really matter who wins I guess," Oehrke said. "It's all crazy."