The political civil war that has gripped Wisconsin since Republican Gov. Scott Walker's 2010 election will intensify next week when Democrats pick a candidate to post up against the governor in a historic recall election in June.
Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary has developed into a two-person race between Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in the GOP landslide of 2010, and former County Executive Kathleen Falk, the favorite of the state's public employee unions.
New survey results released Wednesday in the Marquette University Law School Poll indicate that Barrett has widened his lead over Falk, 38 percent to 21 percent. A similar poll a month ago showed Barrett with a 7 percentage point lead over Falk. Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout are also running.
The survey shows Barrett and Walker in a dead heat in a hypothetical head-to-head general election matchup. Walker leads Falk 49 to 43 percent among likely voters in a similar matchup, the Marquette survey found.
"There is a familiarity with Barrett, with his run for governor in 2010," says Mike Gousha, a distinguished fellow in law and public policy at Marquette and host of the political program UpFront on Milwaukee's WISN-TV.
"He's tried to position himself as the candidate who can beat Scott Walker, and has been careful in how he's positioned himself in the more controversial issues," including union bargaining rights, Gousha says.
It's a strategy that appears to be working for Barrett, whose rise has made him the lone Democratic target of a barrage of negative ads from the Republican Governors Association as well as from Walker's campaign, which this week reported raking in more than $13 million since mid-January.
And it's a strategy that appears in sync with concerns of state Democrats.
All About Jobs
Among the poll's more surprising findings is that the issue that led to the recall efforts against Walker and a handful of Republican legislators — their rollback of public union collective bargaining rights — ranks low in the order of issues important to Democratic primary voters.
Falk — former executive of Dane County, which includes the state capital of Madison — has said that if elected, she would veto any budget that did not include the restoration of collective bargaining. Barrett has been more circumspect, talking more generally about a special session to reconsider the issue.
Nearly half of Democrats polled in the Marquette survey said that creating new jobs tops their priority list. A quarter cited defeating Walker as their most important issue, and 14 percent said they are most interested in reducing political divisions in the state.
Just 12 percent picked "restoring collective bargaining rights for public employees" as their top issue.
Those sentiments appear to be what's driving Democrats' move to Barrett, who is not a union favorite, as well as Walker's singular focus on the Milwaukee mayor.
One of the state Democratic Party's gravest concerns going into Tuesday's contested primary was the potential for self-destruction.
And state Democrats held their collective breath recently when Wisconsin's largest public employee union falsely accused Barrett of providing Republicans a blueprint to undermine union rights.
Would AFSCME's promotion of an online video attacking Barrett, which used stitched-together audio, shatter the party's effort not to destroy itself in its fervor to recall Walker?
The answer, it turned out, was a fairly emphatic "no."
Under pressure, AFSCME, among Falk's most ardent backers, said it used "poor judgment" in the clip job. And the race moved on.
The incident is notable in that it was about as close to ugly as the Democratic primary contest has gotten.
"Democrats writ large have worked very hard to keep the race from becoming openly nasty," says Jeff Mayers of the state's go-to political website, WisPolitics.com. "There have been sharp elbows and jabs, but not an all-out shooting war on TV."
While Barrett leads comfortably in the polls, Mayers and others offer a caution that primaries can be tricky beasts. "Primaries are difficult to poll," Mayers says. "There can be large shifts, and things can break late."
Boucha says that the personable Barrett has done a good job lining up political endorsements, including popular Sen. Herb Kohl and former Rep. Dave Obey. But Falk, he says, enjoys the enthusiasm and passion of the public employee unions, as well as environmental and women's groups.
"The question is: What is a political endorsement worth?" Mayers says. "The same as the Wisconsin teachers union that has resources and can get people out to vote?"
Both Falk and Barrett ran unsuccessfully for their party's gubernatorial nomination in 2002.
Historic Recall, Historic Money
Whoever emerges Tuesday as the Democratic nominee will enter a recall race that will rewrite advertising and spending history.
"Other states may draw more advertising dollars because they're bigger," says Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media. "But in the history of political advertising there's never, ever been anything like this."
"The state of Wisconsin this year will get more political ad impressions on television than any state has ever gotten. Ever. Period," says Goldstein, on leave from the University of Wisconsin's political science department.
And in a state that is so bitterly divided, those ads and that money will be aimed at a tiny percentage of Wisconsin voters who haven't yet made up their minds.
"It is phenomenally polarized, and there are relatively few swing voters," Goldstein says. "There will be a massive amount of advertising targeting a few voters."
"This is completely uncharted territory," he says.
The Marquette poll found that Wisconsin voters are highly engaged in the political process, but the ongoing conflict has taken a toll. Among those surveyed, 29 percent said they'd stopped talking about politics with someone owing to "disagreements over the recall or the governor."
As for Democrats looking toward Tuesday's primary? Liberal blogger Lisa Muxworthy said this: "It's really all about Scott Walker in the end. We want to make sure we get the right person, but we all know it's about getting Scott Walker out."
There will be bruised egos and hard feelings after Tuesday's primary, Mayers predicts, but Democrats will have to rally if they want to recall Walker in the June 5 election.
"They don't have much time and there can't be any delay," he said. "The bigger prize is to knock off Walker."