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As Wis. recall looms, Dems hope to avoid embarrassment

Darren Hauck / Reuters

Tom Barrett and Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talk during a debate held at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee on May 31.


Updated 5:14 p.m. — Democrats and their allies in organized labor are heading into a final weekend of campaigning in hopes of avoiding an embarrassment in their goal of recalling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The Badger State has played host to months of furious campaigning since Walker, the conservative governor first elected in 2010, sought major reforms for public employee unions. He pushed through legislation to strip them of collective bargaining rights and force them to contribute to their pensions.

But the Republican governor leads Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee and Walker’s opponent in the 2010 general election, by 7 points, according to a Marquette Law Poll released Wednesday.

“Democrats really were just foolish in this way they approached this recall,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a sit-down interview with NBCPolitics.com this week. “They set up this World Series event in Wisconsin, built it up. They put on the ballot a candidate who’s not worth two nickels – he’s already lost twice statewide, and is going to lose a third time now.”

The recall battle carries high stakes for not only for Walker, who has become the face of a generation of reformist conservatives, but also for Democrats and organized labor, which vowed revenge in the aftermath of the politically divisive fight to push the collective bargaining law through the state legislature.

That battle drew tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol in Madison, and a million people put their names to paper in support of an initial petition seeking Walker’s recall.

Jeffrey Phelps / AP

A supporter of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, talks with a supporter of Democratic opponent Tom Barrett at a recall election rally Friday, June 1, 2012, in Milwaukee.

Several state senators were recalled in 2011 as a result of the collective bargaining clamp-down, and Democrats almost succeeded in unseating a state Supreme Court justice, too.

But Walker’s been the beneficiary of a marginally improved state economy and overall fatigue associated with the recall. His chief advantage, though, comes from the millions more he, and supportive groups, have been able to spend on the campaign. Walker and those groups have spent $23 million in his race against Barrett; the governor’s fundraising was enabled by a loophole in state law allowing him to collect funds in large sums.  Barrett and labor groups have spent $12.4 million, by contrast.

"From recruiting volunteers and registering voters to organizing on campuses across the state, the DNC and OFA are working alongside the Barrett campaign and the state party to build the ground game that is crucial for success on Election Day.  And we will continue to utilize both our substantial network of activists, volunteers and supporters and extensive online resources to lay the groundwork for victory," said Melanie Roussell, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. 

The DNC and Organizing for America — the president's political arm — have invested almost $1.5 million in staffing, offices and support in order to help Barrett pull out a win on Tuesday.

The campaign has taken a turn toward bare-knuckled politics, though, in which Walker and Barrett have traded barbs at debates and in those paid advertisements. Barrett has sought to stoke suspicions regarding the so-called “John Doe” investigation, in which former Walker aides stand accused of allegedly misappropriating campaign funds.

The Walker campaign, in turn, has questioned Barrett’s crime record as mayor, and their overarching strategy has involved questioning the wisdom of the recall in the first place.

Eager to fight off the sense that the recall is all but lost, Democrats have been furiously contesting public polls that show Walker ahead, and releasing a flurry of internal surveys that, they say, depict a much tighter race.

The June 5 Wisconsin recall election involving the state's controversial Governor Scott Walker is set to favor Walker, a new poll shows. The Morning Joe panel discusses how the recall effort could have broader implications for the 2012 race.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was in the state this week to help raise money for Barrett, and on Friday, former President Bill Clinton will stump against Walker in Wisconsin. For his part, Walker brought his own heavyweight to the fight: South Carolina Gov. Nikki campaigned with him Friday in Sussex.

But the Obama administration has been somewhat removed from the campaign; the president has no plans to campaign in the state for Barrett, and the White House was forced on Wednesday to clarify whether Obama had even endorsed the Democratic nominee (he has).

The saving grace for Democrats might lie in a labor-driven turnout effort. But Republicans have been equally enthusiastic about retaining Walker, whom they treat as a vanguard for efforts to rein in public employee unions and entitlement spending.

But Republicans contend that, between the 2010 elections and two intervening recalls before this one, they have built a voter outreach machine on par with few others – one which could pay dividends in an election like Tuesday’s, which may hinge on each side’s ability to drive supporters to the polls.