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Friday Night Fight In Wisconsin: First Debate Before Looming Recall

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker campaigns Thursday with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in Waukesha, Wis.
Darren Hauck
Getty Images
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker campaigns Thursday with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in Waukesha, Wis.

The divisive battle to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker moves into its final phase in coming days with debates, a continuing flood of out-of-state ad money, and polls that suggest the incumbent is poised to fend off Democratic challenger Tom Barrett.

Here's a look at where things stand between the Republican Walker and Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, heading into Friday night's televised debate, the first of two before the June 5 rematch. (Walker defeated Barrett in the 2010 governor's race, 52.2 percent to 46.5 percent.)

At stake is whether Walker will become the third governor in U.S. history to be recalled by voters, or whether Barrett's third try for the office ends like the first two.


A flurry of statewide survey results released over the past 10 days shows Walker widening his lead over Barrett.

Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett campaigns earlier this month in Milwaukee.
Scott Bauer / AP
Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett campaigns earlier this month in Milwaukee.

--A Marquette Law School poll had Walker improving his lead over Barrett to 6 percentage points, 50-44 percent. The school's poll last month had Walker up by 1 point.

--A St. Norbert College/Wisconsin Public Radio poll showed Walker with a 50-45 percent lead over Barrett. Of Walker supporters surveyed, half said his greatest success has been budget and deficit control; 21 percent cited his rollback of collective bargaining rights. Nearly half of Barrett supporters said they wanted Walker recalled because of his "character," including "bully tactics," and his divisiveness; 26 percent cited his position on collective bargaining.

--An internal Democratic poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for a labor coalition had Walker up 50-47 percent, within the poll's margin of error.

--A Reason-Rupe poll of likely voters for the libertarian Reason Foundation released Thursday gave Walker a 50-42 percent lead. The poll also showed Wisconsin voters evenly split on their views of public employee unions.

--And, finally, an internal poll for Barrett by Democratic pollsters GarinHartYang Research Group had Walker up 50-48 percent. "Our data," the pollsters reported, "show a highly polarized electorate, but with Tom Barrett making notable gains among independent voters."


Wisconsin's political ad-saturated airways got some new ones in recent days, with both the Republican Governors Association and the National Rifle Association going up with new anti-Barrett ads. The RGA compares Walker's record as governor with Barrett's tenure as mayor. The NRA scare ad asserts that Barrett would "recall your gun rights."

The Democratic Governors Association on Thursday announced it will plow an additional $1 million into the race for both television advertising and efforts to get voters to the polls on June 5.

Bill Lueders at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reports that the projected $80 million that may be spent on the recall race is, essentially, targeting a handful of undecided voters.

In the bitterly divided state where some project election turnout could top 2.5 million, all that money may be "geared toward just 75,000 people, which comes to more than $1,000 per undecided vote," Lueders, the center's Money and Politics Project director, wrote Thursday.

President Who?

A parade of GOP bigwigs, from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have made appearances and raised money for Walker.

Some Wisconsin Democrats have bemoaned what they see as a lack of similar national party commitment from their side.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert noted in a column Thursday that President Obama's team may be helping with voter turnout and fundraising appeals, "but the president has avoided taking a vocal role in the conflict."

A presidential visit to Wisconsin before the June 5 election? Unlikely, Gilbert reports, quoting Obama campaign spokesman Tom Reynolds as saying this:

"The President has made it very clear where he stands in this election. He offered his clear support for (Mayor Barrett) the night of his primary victory. Obama for America has been working hand-in-glove with the mayor's campaign ever since then. We're going to continue to work with the campaign to figure out how we can be most helpful in the closing days."

Not helping Barrett in this final frantic stretch: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has popped a major investigative story targeting the Milwaukee Police Department for errors in reporting crime statistics.

The story, by Ben Poston, found that since 2009, city police in hundreds of cases misclassified serious assaults as "lesser offenses," skewing the crime statistics it reports to the FBI. In 2011, for example, the faulty stats showed a 1.1 percent decrease in violent crime, the newspaper reported, rather than the 2.3 percent increase that actually occurred in the city.

Walker's detractors are quick to note that, unlike the governor — whose time as Milwaukee County executive is being investigated by the county district attorney — Barrett himself isn't the aim of the newspaper's investigation.

Walker has called for an outside audit of police data; Barrett has said wrong numbers will be corrected.

The recall will finally be decided in less than two weeks. And then beleaguered Wisconsin voters will get a two-month breather before the state's Aug. 14 GOP Senate primary, a rollicking four-person contest featuring former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

And then on to November ... for that other race.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.