Outcome Of Wis. Recall May Affect Obama, Romney

On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters will decide whether to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker and replace him with a Democrat.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with the fate of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Tomorrow, voters will decide whether to replace him with Democrat Tom Barrett or let him finish his term. The movement to recall Walker was sparked by anger over his move to curtail the rights of public sector unions.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what the election means not just for the governor and his opponent, but for President Obama, Mitt Romney, and their fight for the White House.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The Wisconsin recall is breaking all records: $63 million spent so far, turnout expected to hit an unprecedented 65 percent, and there's a record-breaking number of political ads. If you live in Wisconsin, this is pretty much all you've been hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Who decides Wisconsin's future? The voters or government unions?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They got to recall this governor. He don't care about Wisconsin.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Incredibly, President Obama backs the union bosses.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I wish we could recall him right now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Stand with Walker.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: This is Republican class warfare, an attack on the middle class. This is a battle we need to win.

LIASSON: Walker is ahead in the polls. If he wins, it will be a tremendous blow to the public sector unions who pushed the recall. Republican strategist Keith Appell.

KEITH APPELL: The Democratic Party base, specifically the labor unions, take a guy like Scott Walker, and they put him up on the wall. They say, he's public enemy number one, and we're going to take him out - and they don't? That's a huge statement against them because now all of the sudden they look vulnerable. They look weak. And not only does it become more difficult for them to rally troops and to raise money, but then it energizes the center-right even more.

LIASSON: Wisconsin was already on the list of battleground states for the fall. President Obama may have a couple of different paths to 270 electoral votes, but every one of them requires winning Wisconsin. So if Walker wins tomorrow, the Badger State will immediately become one of Mitt Romney's top targets. And this is exactly what national Democrats and union leaders worried about and why tried unsuccessfully, behind the scenes, to head off the recall. Steve Rosenthal is the former political director of the AFL-CIO.

STEVE ROSENTHAL: There's little doubt that the Romney campaign, the superPACs, have unlimited resources. They're going to dig as deep as they possibly can. They'll probably spend money in Wisconsin regardless. It's potentially a very, very close state. President Obama did very well there in the last election. But, you know, let's remember that in the elections preceding that, it was won by a whisker by the Democrats. So this is a very, very tough state.

LIASSON: Think of the Wisconsin recall in the fall election like the Spanish Civil War was to World War II. Both sides are testing out their weapons for the bigger battle to come. One big weapon is money. Walker's raised about $30 million, mostly from out of state, about seven times what the Democrats have raised. That will fund a robust air war. On the ground, however, Democrats think the recall will help them in November. Here's the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, on CNN.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: It's given the Obama for America operation an opportunity to do the dry run that we need of our massive, significant dynamic grassroots presidential campaign, which can't really be matched by the Romney campaign or the Republicans because they've ignored on-the-ground operations.

LIASSON: Actually, say Republicans, that might have been true in the past, but not anymore. Republican strategist Appell says the recall has given the GOP a chance to create a grassroots operation in Wisconsin they never had in the past, identifying and targeting voters they'll contact again in the fall.

APPELL: Tactically, it often does come down to turnout. And if you already have people are energized, you have mechanisms for getting them out, then yes, you've got something that can really help you in the fall.

LIASSON: The energy that last spring was all on the side of the anti-Walker forces, who protested and petitioned and camped out at the state capitol, has now sparked an equal if not greater reaction from Walker supporters. One sign: more Republicans voted for Walker in last month's recall primary, even though he was unopposed, than the number of Democrats who voted in their contested primary for Tom Barrett and his challenger Kathleen Falk.

That's never happened before, says Phil Cox, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, which has poured about $10 million into the Walker campaign.

PHIL COX: This is incredible. There's nothing to vote for. Everybody knew Walker was going to be the nominee. So I think that's a great sign, and we'll use that primary campaign as a test run for our organization for June 5.

LIASSON: Just as they are using tomorrow as a test run for November. No matter who wins or loses, the Wisconsin recall is now the second most important election in the country this year. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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