MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin Democratic primary voters on Tuesday picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to face controversial Republican Governor Scott Walker in a recall election next month, a test of labor union strength in a battleground state before the November general elections.
Barrett lost the Wisconsin governor’s race to Walker by 5 percentage points in 2010. Since then, Wisconsin has been split by what Barrett called a “civil war” over Walker’s drive to curb union power in the state.
“Wisconsin cannot afford to continue to suffer through Walker’s ideological civil war,” Barrett said in a statement after he was declared the winner.
Walker infuriated Democrats and labor organizations weeks after taking office in 2011 by pushing a measure through the Republican-led legislature that curbed the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions.
The law set off massive protests at the capitol in Madison. In January, Walker’s opponents submitted more than 900,000 recall petition signatures to the state elections board, triggering a June 5 recall election of the governor.
Walker easily won the Republican nomination on Tuesday.
“Democrats are so angry with Walker, this election is about the ‘Not Walker’ factor,” said Timothy Dale, assistant political science professor at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.
If he loses, Walker would become only the third U.S. governor to be removed from office by recall election.
Barrett, a moderate Democrat who has said he would try to restore civility to government, defeated Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who was more confrontational and received most of the support of labor unions.
Falk congratulated Barrett and told supporters that the next four weeks “may be the most important in our state’s history.”
“If we all keep working together, in 28 days we may get our state back on track,” she said.
Republicans quickly hit back at Barrett, saying he had a “failed record” as Milwaukee mayor.
“Over the next four weeks, it will become even clearer to Wisconsin voters that Tom Barrett represents nothing more than the failed policies of the past, and it’s Governor Walker who is moving our state forward.”
A poll taken before Tuesday primary vote had Walker and Barrett virtually tied in the recall election.
Almost everyone in Wisconsin has already decided what they think of Walker, leaving only 5 percent to 6 percent of voters undecided in recent polls.
The key to the outcome is likely to be which side does the best job of turning out its vote, analysts said.
Wisconsin is also seen as a battleground state that will be hotly contested between U.S. President Barack Obama and likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the November 6 elections.
Walker’s union law forced public-sector employees such as teachers to pay a portion of the cost of health insurance and pensions, capped wage rises and required their unions to be recertified every year.
While the union measure is the reason Democrats are trying to recall Walker, the issue has not been the focus of their attacks so far in the campaign. Polls show Wisconsin voters, like those across the nation, are more focused on jobs.
Democrats have hammered Walker since a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs, the most for any state, from March 2011 to March 2012.
Money from campaign contributions is flooding into the state with conservatives supporting Walker and unions backing the Democrats. Walker raised $13 million from January 17 through April 23, according to finance reports filed in Wisconsin - more than seven times the combined amount raised by Barrett and Falk.
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune. Desking by Christopher Wilson