MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Political activists converged on Wisconsin on Sunday to join get-out-the-vote efforts two days before a historic election on whether to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker that is seen as a test for November’s presidential race.
Walker enraged labor unions by denuding their power with a news state law last year, and the battle has taken on national significance with some calling it the second most important U.S. election of the year.
Wisconsin is a good testing ground for the November 6 presidential election because it is closely-divided politically -- voting for President Barack Obama in 2008 but electing Walker and a Republican legislature in 2010.
The division over the recall extends all the way to the White House race. Presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney has called Walker a “hero,” while Obama has supported Walker’s Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
All over the Midwestern state - known for its dairy farms, factories and the revered Green Bay Packers NFL football team - political professionals and volunteers fanned out to ensure supporters go to the polls.
“It’s really about the future of this state,” said Bob Peterson, the president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association as he grilled hamburgers on Saturday for volunteers who will try to get-out-the-vote against Walker.
Civil Rights activists Reverend Jesse Jackson from Chicago and Al Sharpton from New York will be in Milwaukee to try to turn out the black vote in the state’s largest city.
If he loses, Walker would be only the third state governor recalled from office during his term after North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and Gray Davis of California in 2003.
Polls show a close race although Walker has held a single-digit lead since the recall date of June 5 was formally set, and there are almost no undecided voters. The focus is on voter turnout in a state with a history of high voter participation.
Most members of state and local government unions, who took an effective pay cut when Walker’s law forced them to pay more for health insurance and pensions, believe he balanced the state budget on their backs. The law also made paying union dues voluntary and forced unions to recertify annually.
Thousands of people protested the measures last year, which Walker said where needed to balance the state budget in a tough economic environment.
Kelly Heigl, a school teacher, said on Saturday that she feared public education would be crippled in Wisconsin if Walker remains in office.
“I am so, so excited because we are so close and I feel a big victory coming on,” Heigl said, as she sat in her vehicle with “Teachers for Barrett” written on the windows.
A year ago it looked like Walker would be ousted in the recall because of the protests and unions’ reputation for turning out the vote of their supporters. Nearly a million people signed petitions calling for the governor to go.
But conservatives and Republicans around the country have rallied to Walker’s side. A parade of Republican luminaries have appeared with Walker in Wisconsin, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.
Walker has traveled the country, raising some $30 million in political donations, more than half of which is from out of state sources such as the conservative Koch brothers. Barrett has raised about $4 million.
Victoria Marone, who has several “Stand With Walker” signs in the yard of her Milwaukee home, said on Saturday she is worried that the massive union effort could still overcome Walker’s efforts.
“Unions ... are like rabid dogs with their jaws clenched down on your arm and won’t let go,” said Marone, who was a school teacher for more than 50 years.
Walker far outspent Barrett and the Democrats on television advertising, and Republicans have mounted their own ground effort based on new software that allows them to pinpoint like-minded voters house-by-house.
John Larrabee, a truck driver who also had a “Stand with Walker” sign in his Milwaukee yard, said he agreed with Walker that joining a union should be voluntary.
“This is class warfare,” Larrabee said. “They’re trying to pit those that are successful with those that want to sit on their butt.”
Editing by Greg McCune and Anthony Boadle