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Why is Wisconsin governor facing a recall election?

(Reuters) - Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker is the first U.S. state governor in nearly a decade to face a recall election after he outraged labor unions and Democrats with a law stripping public sector unions of most of their power.

Just two other governors of U.S. states have lost recall elections: Lynn Frazier in North Dakota in 1921 and Gray Davis of California in 2003, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Here are a few questions and answers about the election.

Q: Why is the election being held?

After Walker won the 2010 election and Republicans won majorities in the Wisconsin legislature, he infuriated Democrats and labor unions by pushing through the legislature a measure to curb the power of public sector unions in the state.

Democrats and unions said he had not campaigned on this issue and had no mandate to make such a major change. Walker said the curbs were needed to balance the state budget.

Democrats amassed nearly 1 million signatures on petitions from an adult population of 4.4 million over a 60-day period, almost double the number needed to force a special recall election for the governor.

The Wisconsin non-partisan Government Accountability Board voted unanimously to order the election for the governor, the lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators who voted for the union curbs.

Nine Wisconsin state senators faced recall elections last year after the collective bargaining laws were enacted, six Republicans and three Democrats. Two Republicans lost their seats.

Q: What exactly does the law on labor unions say and why did it anger them?

Walker said the measure was needed to close a budget gap, while unions see it as a threat to their existence. The Democratic party was alarmed by the law because it gets significant political donations from unions.

The law forces most public sector workers to pay more of their health insurance and pension costs and limits collective bargaining to base wages and limits total wage increases to the inflation rate.

The law limits the amount of health premiums an employer may pay. It required last year, for example, that executive status employees pay 6.65 percent of earnings toward the state retirement fund and others such as teachers to pay 5.8 percent.

Most workers are not required to pay union dues and the law requires annual votes for a union to retain certification, with 51 percent of the unit voting in favor, a part of the law unions have objected to the most.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission said they have election reports on 252 bargaining units so far, including 207 school districts, 39 municipalities and six state units. Unions have won 87 percent of those elections, losing 32 votes.

Several large bargaining units have opted not to seek certification votes. Those decisions are not reported directly to the state.

Q: What is the process of the election?

Wisconsin is unusual in that the recall election will not be a yes or no on Walker but a vote between Walker and a Democratic opponent.

A primary will be held on May 8 to choose the Democratic opponent to Walker and the general election will be on June 5.

There already are several Democrats who have said they are candidates and Walker’s opponent in the 2010 election, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, is considering a possible rematch.

Q: What does this mean for the rest of the nation?

Wisconsin is considered one of about a dozen battleground states that will decide the U.S. presidential election. The debate over Republican proposals to limit the powers of public sector unions was watched and funded nationally by groups on both sides of the issue.

Wisconsin voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 but in 2010 it swung toward Republicans, electing Walker and Republican legislative majorities, and replacing incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold with Republican Ron Johnson.

The outcome of the recall could indicate which way Wisconsin will swing in the November election.

Both sides in the fight are watching Wisconsin because a victory for Walker could encourage other states to follow in limiting unions. Ohio tried and failed to enact a law curbing unions last year and Indiana became the first “right to work” state in the Midwest industrial heartland earlier this year. So-called right to work laws allow union members to opt out of paying union dues, weakening organized labor.

Q: Who is likely to win?

Wisconsin has been politically polarized over the last year and almost all voters have decided how they feel about Walker and his agenda. So there are few undecided voters and political analysts said that, barring a major gaffe or development, the campaign over the next few weeks is unlikely to change the numbers much.

A Marquette Law School poll released this week suggested a close election between Walker and two possible Democrats: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost the 2010 election to Walker, and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.

This means the outcome of the recall election could come down to which side can turn out its vote. Democrats and their allies among unions have been more vocal, organizing massive demonstrations, and are most influential in the capital Madison and the largest city of Milwaukee. Democrats are counting on unions to mobilize their voters. Walker is strongest in rural areas and the suburbs of Milwaukee. He is counting on the Tea Party and conservative base of the Republican party, plus a silent group of voters who feel it was necessary to balance the budget, and may resent union members for getting pensions and health insurance when many private sector workers do not.

Barrett, who is standing for reelection as mayor on April 3 against token opposition, has not decided whether to challenge Walker. State Senator Kathleen Vinehout and Secretary of State Doug La Follette also are possible challengers.

The Marquette poll suggested Barrett would win a primary with 36 percent of the vote against the current Democratic candidates Falk at 29 percent, and Vinehout and La Follette at 8 percent.

Walker led Barrett in a general election 49 percent to 47 percent and Falk by 49 percent to 45 percent in the poll of 707 registered and eligible voters. The Democratic primary poll had a 5.2 percent margin of error and the general election poll 3.8 percent.

Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune