04/04/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2012

Scott Walker Recall: Democratic Candidates Fight For Chance To Face Governor In June

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday's GOP presidential primary in Wisconsin may have attracted significant national attention, but within the state, Republicans are intently focused on the June recall election of Gov. Scott Walker (R), who enjoys an 82 percent approval rating amongst GOP voters.

Recalling a sitting governor is no easy task; it's been done just twice in U.S. history. But while Republicans are amassing money and ground support in the next few months to fend off the opposition, Democrats are still figuring out who among them will be the strongest candidate to run against the governor. The process is pitting traditional allies against each other, as the candidates try to show off their pro-labor credentials while also making the case that they are best equipped to beat Walker in the general election.

There are currently four Democratic candidates competing in the May primary. Former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett are considered the two frontrunners, with state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) and Secretary of State Doug La Follette also in the race.

Falk announced her candidacy just one day after recall organizers turned in more than 900,000 signatures on petitions to recall Walker.

From the beginning, Falk was thought to be the favorite candidate of labor unions -- an important constituency, since it was Walker's decision to push through an anti-union bill that ignited the outrage against him last year. Falk has the backing of at least six unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). EMILY's List, the Sierra Club and Young Progressives of Wisconsin also endorsed her.

Falk said she believes these groups have flocked to her side not only because of her work in Dane County, but also because of the 20 years she spent as an environmental lawyer and advocate and her work on women's causes, including her active support of Planned Parenthood.

"To have earned the support of all the unions shows that they respect me because I'm tough but fair," she said in an interview with The Huffington Post. She pointed to her final three years as Dane County executive, when she negotiated contract changes with eight unions -- and still earned positive reviews.

"They agreed to a 5 percent cut in pay for 2009, a 3 percent cut in pay in 2010, and $1 million more in their health care contributions in 2011, saving taxpayers about $10 million over those three years of reopened contracts. It wasn't easy," she said.

Running virtually even as the frontrunner in the race is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D), who just announced his candidacy on Friday. Barrett ran unsuccessfully against Walker in 2010.

"We're about 72 hours into this campaign, and I couldn't be happier with the start," he told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "The buzz has been phenomenal, the response has been phenomenal, the calls have been ringing off the hook."

In January, a survey by Public Policy Polling found that Barrett would be the top choice of Wisconsin Democrats if he decided to jump in.

Labor unions were less enthused about Barrett's entrance and have already gone on the offensive against him. They have tussled with him during his time as mayor. Wisconsin AFSCME leaders sent an email on Monday, touting Falk's candidacy and questioning Barrett's record.

"For all of us who've worked tirelessly to recall Scott Walker, the decision as to who will challenge him in the general election is one we simply cannot afford to get wrong," the email read.

The officials pointed to an interview Barrett gave with a conservative radio host in the state last year during the height of the labor protests, in which he said that Republicans should pass the anti-union portions of the governor's bill without the Democratic senators.

But, as the Associated Press notes, the video "does not include other comments Barrett made speaking out against Walker's elimination of nearly all collective bargaining rights and saying that he believed trying to include those changes in a budget bill was dishonest."

Both candidates have promised to work to restore public workers' collective bargaining rights if elected in the June general election. Falk has gone so far as to promise to veto any budget from the legislature that does not include a reinstatement of those rights.

Barrett has not made the same pledge, upsetting some labor officials. He told The Huffington Post that while he will "certainly fight and be successful in restoring collective bargaining rights," he doesn't want to commit to one strategy and limit his flexibility.

"I think that there are other ways you can do this without taking one approach and one approach only," he said. "I talked about having a special session, where we would introduce a bill to do it. We could do it through free-standing legislation. But I think as an executive, you don't want to tie your hands with one specific approach, because that, frankly, gives opponents a chance to gum things up in an even more dramatic fashion."

Barrett told The Huffington Post that he plans to roll out several endorsements in the coming days, but he already has the backing of state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). Erpenbach was one of the 14 senators who fled the state in February 2011 and denied their GOP colleagues the quorum needed to push through the budget bill that included the anti-union provisions, becoming heroes among progressives in the process. The endorsement blunts some of the criticism from labor advocates that Barrett wasn't supportive enough of the efforts to protest Walker last year.

"I've said from the beginning that we need a candidate who gives us the best chance to defeat Scott Walker and that candidate is Tom Barrett,” Erpenbach said in a statement. "I know Tom will fight to restore collective bargaining, focus on the economy and end the division in our state."

Former Wisconsin congressman Dave Obey was another Democrat who was widely discussed as a possible candidate several months ago. At the time, only Falk had declared her intent to run. But Obey said that he would prefer Barrett.

When asked on Wednesday why he has yet to endorse in the Democratic primary, Obey simply said, "I'll let people reach their own conclusion on that." He added that he would be making an announcement about the race next week, although he declined to say what that would be.

He said that even though unions have so far endorsed only Falk, it is "nonsense" to suggest that any of the four candidates are anti-labor.

"You cannot let personalities, you cannot let unhappiness about tactical differences get in the way of the understanding that both Falk and Barrett and certainly the other two minor candidates in the field are all strong supporters of worker bargaining rights," he said.

At the end of the day, it will take all of Democrats' firepower to defeat Walker. The governor had already raised $12 million by the time the recall was officially certified. Overcoming that financial advantage will be one of Democrats' toughest challenges, and contributions from unions will no doubt be important in their efforts.

"Gov. Walker has more money than you can actually possibly think about how he can even spend it at all," said Falk. "That's how much money he has. This election is in 65 days. And our -- the Democratic side -- will never match what Republicans are able to raise."

Barrett is worried that a divisive primary in May could hurt Democrats in the June general election, given that they will have just one month to regroup and get behind their nominee.

"Oh, there's no question a divisive Democratic primary will help Scott Walker," he said. "It would be a tragedy if, after all of this work, that we lost this opportunity because Democrats or their allies turned on each other. That, to me, would just be a monumental disaster."

Obey agreed that unity will be essential for Democrats once a nominee is chosen.

"Nothing good will happen if that doesn't happen," he said.

Most labor unions threw their support behind Barrett in his 2010 race against Walker, but one labor official in Wisconsin said there was an "open question" about what they would do if the mayor gets the Democratic nomination this time.

"I think part of it will be determined by how he continues to answer these questions about how he intends to restore collective bargaining rights," the labor official said. "Obviously, it's a huge priority to recall Walker, and so I would anticipate they would be behind whichever candidate came out, but there may be a question of the enthusiasm of their support for him."