MADISON, Wis. -- Embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker may not face a recall vote until next summer, but he's already campaigning to keep his job in the face of a major challenge by organized labor and the Democratic Party.
With petitions for a recall election now circulating, Walker is running television advertising defending his record during his first 11 months in office. Soon, Republican volunteers will begin going door to door, making phone calls and writing letters to the editor arguing that his most controversial initiative, which stripped public employee unions of most of their bargaining rights, was justified by the state's fiscal problems.
The Walker recall effort, which will be one of the most fiercely contested races in the 2012 national campaign, will serve as a gauge of the public's support for confrontational measures used by new Republican governors to balance state budgets. In only two weeks, petitioners here are on pace to gather more than enough signatures to put Walker on the ballot against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
Walker's backers are trying to take lessons from the only two successful gubernatorial recalls in U.S. history – against California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921.
Those governors were too slow to fight back, said David Schecter, a political scientist at California State University, Fresno, who has studied recall campaigns. Their races were mostly lost before the signatures were submitted.
"There's this momentum that builds and once it builds it's very difficult for things to reverse," Schecter said. "The signature stage is really the election before the election. In that stage, voters are letting their choices be known."
Walker will try to stop the recall election, or delay it for months, by challenging the validity of signatures that must be turned in by Jan. 17. Recall supporters must gather 540,000 names of registered voters. State elections board workers will manually review all the signatures for obvious mistakes or missing information. Republican Party officials said they also will scour the petitions but would not elaborate on their methods.
The effort to recall Walker echoes the other successful gubernatorial recalls, which were well financed and conducted when the electorate was frustrated. The campaign is expected to cost far more than the $44 million spent on nine recall efforts targeting Wisconsin state senators this summer.
The Republican Party is bolstering its grass roots organization across the state, said the party's executive director Stephan Thompson. He said he is preparing for an election even though the GOP will fight to prevent one.
"I have little doubt the Democrats are going to be able to get the signatures," Thompson said. Recall organizers reported collecting 105,000 signatures in just four days.
The night before the petitions began circulating, Walker launched a television ad with a school board member praising his collective bargaining law. Walker also argues that other budget-balancing moves, like cutting public education funding and Medicaid, were necessary to deal with a $3.6 billion shortfall.
Walker emphasizes that he balanced the budget without laying off public workers or raising sales or income taxes. Also, property taxes are scheduled to drop on average statewide.
But unemployment is stagnant and Walker is far from fulfilling his central campaign promise to add 250,000 jobs over four years.
"The No. 1 issue has been and will continue to be jobs and the economy," Republican strategist Mark Graul said. "The governor is going to need to make a persuasive message as to why he's the best candidate to get Wisconsin's economy pointed in the right direction."
The national conservative group Americans for Prosperity has teamed up with a similar local group to run an ad in support of Walker.
Recall organizers believe if the election is a referendum on Walker, they will win. One poll conducted in the days before the petition drive began found 58 percent of respondents in favor of recalling Walker. His disapproval rating was also at 58 percent. Walker won election last November with 52 percent of the vote.
In their recall campaign, Democrats will argue that Walker deceived voters by not talking about his collective bargaining plan when he ran for office. They will argue that the measure and other budget-balancing moves, like the cuts to public education, were unnecessary and tore the state apart.
"The burden is on him here," Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said. To keep the focus on Walker, Democrats don't plan on putting forward a candidate to challenge him until well into 2012, Tate said.
The earliest a Walker recall election could be held is March 27. But most expect it to be later, given the expected petition challenges and lawsuits. Lawsuits were filed on both sides alleging wrongdoing in the petition process in the nine state Senate recall elections. The elections were allowed to proceed and two GOP incumbents lost.Along with the effort to recall Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, petitions are being circulated targeting four more Republican state senators. Democrats need to win one seat to take over majority control of the Senate, but Republicans also control the Assembly.