MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin Democrats launched their recall drive against Republican Gov. Scott Walker last year, it was all about unions. They wanted Walker to pay with his job for pushing legislation that stripped almost all public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.
More recently, Democrats, buoyed by fresh federal statistics that show Wisconsin's economy is still sputtering badly, have tried to transform the election into a referendum on the governor's failure to put people back to work. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and a group supporting Kathleen Falk, the two front-runners for the Democratic nomination, launched new television ads over the last three days ripping Walker for not creating jobs.
"Gov. Walker has counted you out," the Falk ad proclaims. "He destroyed workers' rights, then Wisconsin's jobs."
Walker has tried to meet the new attacks head-on. He is quick to tout that the state's unemployment rate stands at its lowest levels in four years and has been trumpeting even the tiniest positive job creation news. He has also asked that people be patient.
"Vince Lombardi, when he took over the Green Bay Packers, the Packers were 1-10-1," said Walker, who took office in January 2011. "He didn't take them to the world championship the next year. It took a couple of years. But eventually once they got there they were one of the premiere teams in the NFL. And we can be a premiere state."
Democrats began their push to boot Walker out of office in November, about eight months after he and Republicans who control the state Legislature passed a contentious law requiring public workers to contribute more to their health care and pensions and stripping nearly all of them of most union rights.
Walker said the changes were needed to help balance the state budget and help local governments deal with deep cuts in state aid. Democrats saw the measure as a full-scale assault on organized labor, one of their key constituencies.
The union fight drew tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol for three weeks. Even now, more than a year after the law passed, a small group still gathers every noon hour to protest Walker.
It's a fight that also elevated Walker to superstar status in national conservative circles. New campaign finance reports show he's raised an unprecedented $25 million in campaign cash since taking office.
Undeterred, four Democrats – Barrett, Falk, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and Secretary of State Doug La Follette – are running for a chance to face Walker in a June 5 general recall election. Barrett and Falk have emerged as the front-runners in the May 8 primary. Most of the state's unions have lined up behind Falk.
The Democrats have jabbed at Walker over the economy since the campaign began. But they've turned up the heat in the last few weeks, after a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report found Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs, including 17,800 government jobs from March 2011 to March 2012, the largest job loss of any state.
As the economy takes center stage in the campaign, the union fight has slipped into the background.
A poll the Marquette Law School conducted between April 26 and April 29 and released Wednesday found that 46 percent of voters who said they'll vote in the Democratic primary said job creation was the most important consideration in choosing a candidate. Only 12 percent said restoring collective bargaining was most important.
Barrett unleashed an ad Monday touting himself as "the jobs governor" and ripping Walker for failing to deliver on a 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs.
"By focusing his attention on this ideological civil war he took his eye off the prize," Barrett said at a news conference in Milwaukee Wednesday. "And the prize was what he campaigned on in 2010, which was jobs. And I believe that a large part of the reason that Wisconsin ranked dead last in the country last year in jobs was because he was focusing his attention on this ideological war."
Falk issued a statement last week claiming Walker has failed the state on jobs. On Wednesday, a political advocacy group backing the former Dane County executive, Wisconsin for Falk, pushed out an ad accusing the governor of counting Wisconsin workers out. Falk told reporters during a visit to a Madison taxi company Wednesday that the recall has always been about jobs.
Vinehout and La Follette haven't launched any major attacks on Walker over jobs; both campaigns are starved for cash.
Walker, for his part, notes that he has called two special legislative sessions to address job creation since he took office and that the state's unemployment rate was 6.8 percent in March, the lowest rate since 2008. This week, he announced a $100 million economic revitalization plan for Milwaukee.
Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Barrett has no plan for putting people back to work in Milwaukee and is simply trying to distract voters from his record. She did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about Falk.
Walker visited a Waukesha concrete maker Wednesday to celebrate its plans to return at least 55 laid-off employees to work and create 30 new positions.
"Every job makes a difference to that person and that family that benefits from that," Walker said. "And every job sends a message to every other small business across the state that it's OK to jump on in, the water's just fine. That's how we've tried to change the climate."
Ramde, who reported from Waukesha, Wis., can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.