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Is WI's Falk-Barrett battle cracking 'United' Democrats?

By   /   April 16, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — A campaign that began under the auspices of a “United Wisconsin” has hit some division in recent weeks, as two battling Democrats duke it out for their party’s nomination in a recall election against Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

While one GOP official sees the apparent fissure as a win for Walker, a Democratic Party leader asserts Democrats will rally around the people’s candidate, putting disputes over organized labor aside for the ultimate prize of beating a governor they see as Public Enemy No. 1.

With three weeks remaining in the Democrats' primary campaign, Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, front runners in the chase for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination, have ratcheted up the campaign attacks.

Wisconsin’s public-employee unions have come out in full force and voice in support of Falk, endorsing her and showering her with some $2 million in campaign contributions. They have made clear their dissatisfaction with Barrett, who employed some of the cost-saving measures in Act 10, the Walker-led law that stripped most public employees of collective bargaining, to help solve Milwaukee’s budget problems.

While surrogates for Falk and Barrett battle it out, the idea of a “United” movement against Walker seems to be cracking.

United Wisconsin, a liberal political action committee, drove the recall effort against Walker and Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, launching a recall petition drive that began Nov. 15 with a spirit of unity among Democrats. The effort collected more than 900,000 valid signatures to recall Walker, and more than 840,000 in the drive against Kleefisch, well beyond the 540,000-plus signatures needed in each campaign.

Now, as the leading Democrats battle for supremacy, will the sparring drive a wedge among party members — in a nearly evenly divided electorate where every vote matters?

Ben Sparks, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, sees division — and division among Democrats could prove costly.

Sparks said the left has an identity crisis, caught, he insisted, between a recall campaign driven by fringe left groups and organized labor and the party “establishment.”

“The left in Wisconsin is a two-headed snake, and both heads are trying to swallow the other,” he said.

There’s divide of purpose among the Wisconsin’s Democratic Party and organized labor, the people who have been faithful to the party in presence and cash.

An article in liberal investigative publication Mother Jones last week, Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Graeme Zielinski “downplayed the importance of the anti-union provisions in Walker’s ‘budget repair’ bill.”

“Collective bargaining is not moving people,” Zielinski told Mother Jones, which pointed to a party strategy memo that gives little attention to union issues.

Now, the directive from up top, agreed on by many party faithful, is that Walker lied to the voters of Wisconsin about the true nature of his agenda, something the governor has repeatedly denied.

Act 10, which earned the ire of state employees, brought tens of thousands of people daily to the Capitol, protesting Walker, the majority Republicans and anyone who stood with them.

Several reports in recent months have highlighted some of the fiscal easing local governments, mostly school districts, have found in applying the key provisions of Act 10, demanding union members pay more for their health care and pensions and holding wage negotiations to the rate of inflation.

Charles Franklin, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the battles between Barrett and Falk, who are far outpacing fellow Democrats state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and Secretary of State Douglas LaFollette in the latest polls, may have temporarily divided the party.

But Franklin, who also directs the Marquette University Law School poll tracking 2012 election year politics, said Democrats may find cohesiveness following the May 8 primary, just as Republicans are starting to do around GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“There are a lot of counter examples of hard fought races that have not led to a divided party,” Franklin said. “And in the current case where Gov. Walker is such a negative for Democrats, they are more likely to unite behind any candidate.”

Edna Highland, vice chair of the Kenosha County Democratic Party, agreed.

“I do believe the Democrats have decided whoever wins the primary, they will back because they want to see Walker the hell out of there,” Highland said. “I don’t think there is going to be any bitterness here.”

The latest polling shows Walker ahead of all comers.

Public Policy Polling, or PPP, which just conducted a poll for liberal website Daily Kos, found Walker ahead of Barrett by 5 percentage points, and 7 percent points in front of Falk. In both cases, Walker tracked 50 percent.

The survey of 1,136 voters, conducted over the weekend, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

It would seem a reversal of fortunes. PPP in February tracked Barrett ahead of Walker, 49 percent to 46 percent, and the governor stood about even with Falk.

Tom Jensen, of national political polling firm PPP, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Franklin said he could not say whether Walker’s rise in the poll has anything to do with the Democrats’ heated gubernatorial primary race.

Marquette releases its next poll about a week before the primary.