Darren Hauck / Reuters
Citizens wait in line to cast their vote in the recall election between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in Wauwatosa, Wis., June 5, 2012.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — An emotionally charged debate over fixing broken budgets and the rights of labor unions will reach a political apex on Tuesday, when Wisconsin voters decide the fate of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Wisconsinites are casting their ballots to decide whether to recall Walker and replace him with Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. The contest has assumed national significance, with stark battle lines drawn between reform-minded conservatives and organized labor, each of which has a great deal of political capital riding on the outcome of the election.
The recall, initiated by organized labor after Walker pushed a bill through his state legislature stripping public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, was set to bring a degree of political closure to Wisconsin, but likely not heal the deep wounds opened by this battle some 15 months ago.
"Walker has divided this state so much — I know individual families who are divided," said Debra Kosloske, a union member and Barrett supporter. "Brothers and sisters won't talk to each other."
"We're moving in the right direction, and this recall is nothing more than unions grasping for the last vestige of power they can hold," said Dennis Clinard, a small business owner from western Wisconsin who's supporting Walker. "This recall's not about our state or economy; it's about a union power grab."
Tom Lynn / Getty Images
Gov. Scott Walker walks past media after he filled out his ballot at Jefferson School to vote in the gubernatorial recall election June 5, 2012 in Wauwatosa, Wis.
Walker and Barrett spent their final days of campaigning criss-crossing the Badger State to make their case to voters.
The governor, who was first elected in 2010 in an election that also pitted him versus Barrett, has essentially made the case that Wisconsin should move past the series of recalls — first against state senators, and then a state supreme court justice — that have plagued the state over the last year and a half.
"I think most people on this state want to move on. They're sick of all the attacks, all the commercials," Walker told reporters on Monday in West Salem. "You're not able to do that if my opponent's elected. It's the start of an ongoing, seemingly endless campaign of year-round elections."
Barrett has also made an appeal for unity in the state, asserting that his election would end the partisan bickering to have plagued Wisconsin since Walker's election.
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"Scott Walker has succeeded in dividing this state. He said he was going to divide and conquer," Barrett said Monday evening in Kenosha. "He's succeeded at dividing, and tomorrow, we will show this state, we will show this nation, that Scott Walker will never conquer the middle class of Wisconsin."
But the recall election here has taken on a measure of national significance, making it difficult for the candidates to isolate its impact to the state. While neither President Barack Obama nor presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney have campaigned in the state for their party's candidate, outside groups have spent tens of millions of dollars on candidate boosting.
Walker has been touted as the vanguard for a generation of conservative reformers who wish to enact major changes to programs and institutions traditionally favored by Democrats — changes, Republicans insist, that are essential to addressing future budget crises at the state and federal level.
Tom Lynn / Getty Images
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett slides his ballot into the voting machine at the Milwaukee French Immersion School June 5, 2012 in Milwaukee.
For Democrats and labor, the election is no less than a test of their ability to stand up against such forceful reforms, especially in a state like Wisconsin, the birthplace of public employee unions and a state with a rich tradition of progressivism.
For those reasons, it's of little surprise that the recall election has stirred passions on both sides of the argument — passions that are unlikely to dim by Wednesday.
"I'd crawl over glass to vote for him," said Dave DeVetter, a Walker supporter, at the governor's rally Monday evening in Green Bay.
"He's done way too much damage," said Dianne Noreike, a Barrett voter who was protesting Walker's appearance at a brewery yesterday in Stevens Point. She was one of the thousands of protesters to converge on Madison in the winter of 2011, and has been active through the recall in seeking Walker's ouster.
With emotions running so high, conventional wisdom has suggested that there are few undecided voters remaining in Wisconsin. The election would then come down to voter turnout, and each side's ability to drive its base to the polls.
Democrats insist that a high-turnout election resembling the electorate in 2008, when a diverse group of voters went to the polls and broke in Obama's favor by a 13-point margin, would mean victory for Barrett on Tuesday.
Over 2.9 million voters went to the polls in Wisconsin in 2008; in the off-year 2010 elections, about 2.1 million Wisconsinites cast ballots, and many traditional Democratic constituencies stayed home.
"There's no doubt in my mind that this is going to be a tough, tight election. So what it really depends on is turnout," Walker said in Stevens Point.
While most public polling has indicated Walker has a slight advantage over Barrett, a close election could swing on high turnout. Democrats in the state believe a total turnout of over 2.3 million would benefit them.
Ruth Conniff of The Progressive Magazine, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, and NBC's Ron Mott discuss the Wisconsin recall election.
"We can't take for granted any of the polls that show us ahead," Walker said in Green Bay.
Walker has also sought to peel off votes from Democrats and independents who disagree with his collective bargaining reform, but feel that a recall of the governor is unwarranted.
"This whole recall thing is appalling to me," said Tori Rader, a Walker supporter, at the governor's Green Bay rally. "When you elect somebody, the only way you should be able to get them out of office is because of malfeasance. Not because you don't like what they did."
NBC's Alex Moe contributed to this report.