Long Political Battle Comes To A Head In Wis. Recall

Wisconsin voters will decide Tuesday whether Republican Scott Walker will be just the third governor recalled from office in U.S. history. The gubernatorial recall election caps off an intense 16 month period in the state. Partisans on both sides are studying this election — between Walker and Milwaukee's Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett — for clues to this fall's contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Robert Siegel talks with Don Gonyea in Wisconsin.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Just under an hour from now, polls close across Wisconsin, where voters are deciding the fate of first-term Republican Governor Scott Walker. If Walker wins today's recall election, he stays in office. If he loses, Democratic nominee Tom Barrett becomes governor. Barrett is currently the mayor of Milwaukee. The vote caps off 16 months of bare-knuckle politics in Wisconsin.

The recall was prompted by Walker's push, shortly after taking office, to dramatically limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. Today, Mayor Barrett described the election as historic.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: And we are just fortunate to be here at this time, trying to make sure that our government represents us and not interests that don't care about this state.

SIEGEL: And this morning, Governor Walker recognized the need to heal the state's political wounds.

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: Certainly, we're going to - if I have the honor of winning the election tonight, I'll certainly talk about the ways to bring the state together this evening. But the most important thing we can do is actually not just talk about it, but do it. And I think tomorrow will be the first of many steps.

SIEGEL: Well, joining me now are NPR's David Schaper and Don Gonyea, both of whom are in Wisconsin. And first to Don, who is at Governor Scott Walker's headquarters in Waukesha. Don, Walker described himself yesterday as cautiously optimistic. Does that reflect the mood there tonight?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Yes. They are looking at these very high turnout numbers across the state. They're not quite sure what to make of it. Both candidates have been saying they want very high turnout. But still, you know, the polls were generally trending Walker's way over the last week or so. Some of them still have it very close. But again, that high turnout, nobody knows that to make of it.

SIEGEL: Well, let's turn now to NPR's David Schaper. He's at Mayor Tom Barrett's election night event in Milwaukee. David, what are you hearing from people there?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, the Barrett campaign is cautiously optimistic as well. And they believe that the strong turnout bodes well for Mayor Barrett. Some of the turnout figures I just heard from his spokesman were 119 percent turnout in Madison. And the way that that's possible is you can register the day of the election. And that means that a lot of people who didn't vote in 2010, in that governors race, which was narrow but won by - and this is a rematch of that race - so it was won by Scott Walker pretty handily. Many more people are turning out in Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee and Madison, this time around.

SIEGEL: David, let's turn back to Don Gonyea, who's at Governor Walker's headquarters. Don, how do you think the presidential campaigns, President Obama and the Republican, Mitt Romney, look at this race in Wisconsin?

GONYEA: They were just a little wary of it. You know, each of them kind of had their guy in the race. Mitt Romney back months ago, when Republicans were holding their presidential primary here, you know, talked about Walker and said he's doing marvelous things and really praised him. But he hasn't come here since the actual recall election got under way. President Obama kept his distance as well. The Republican National Committee was all in.

Of course, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the RNC, is from Wisconsin. The DNC was a little more cautious, but Robert, I can tell you, the president put out a tweet last night. Depending on the outcome, people will say it's just enough or too little, too late. He tweeted last night from his official account - it's election day in Wisconsin tomorrow and I'm standing by Tom Barrett, he'd make an outstanding governor. That was it.

SIEGEL: I have one question for both of you, very quickly. I wonder what you're hearing there from people in Wisconsin, which is - and we'll start with you, David Schaper - do people describe this as a choice like any other gubernatorial election, or do they regard it as something special to recall the governor? Is it a different bar they're applying?

Well, I've lost David Schaper, but Don, what do you hear from people about that?

GONYEA: I mean, I think different people see it different ways. I can tell you, this one's a lot more personal. I mean, people have, you know, chosen up sides and they're fighting within families and amongst friends. So I do think they look at it differently.

SIEGEL: And on that note, guys, I'm going to have to let it go. And we all look forward to hearing the results from Wisconsin when the polls close at 8:00 pm Central, 9:00 pm Eastern. That was NPR's Don Gonyea at Republican Governor Scott Walker's headquarters in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and David Schaper reporting from Milwaukee, where Democratic challenger is awaiting today's election results.

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