MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Whichever Democrat wins Tuesday's recall primary in Wisconsin will have only a short four weeks to make the closing argument that Republican Gov. Scott Walker should be booted from office after 16 contentious months on the job.
For Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, one of four Democrats in the running, a victory would set up a June 5 rematch of the 2010 race that Walker won by 5 percentage points. Walker easily defeated token opposition in the GOP primary Tuesday.
It was an election that failed to hint at the turmoil to come. Once inaugurated, Walker almost immediately joined with Republicans who had also retaken control of the Legislature to strip most state workers of their collective bargaining rights. The move blindsided Walker's opponents, who proceeded to pack the state Capitol by the thousands for weeks of protest as Democratic lawmakers fled the state in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to block the newly minted governor's plans.
Walker emerged from the fight as a hero to Republicans nationwide, but a villain to unions and Democrats who responded by collecting more than 900,000 signatures to put Walker back on the ballot less than two years into his four-year term.
If defeated next month, Walker would be just the third governor recalled in U.S. history. Republicans both in Wisconsin and across the country have rallied to his defense, helping him take advantage of a quirk in state law to collect $25 million in campaign donations, mostly from out-of-state donors, and shatter state fundraising records.
"It should never have come to this crap," said Carl Schramm, 77, a Whitefish Bay man who works part time for a plumbing and heating contractor and who voted for Walker against token opposition in the GOP recall primary. "It's stupid. It costs a lot of money. He was duly elected."
Preliminary results showed Walker beat protester Arthur Kohl-Riggs with 96 percent of the vote. Kohl-Riggs ran as a Republican, even though he has protested against Walker and his initiatives for months. Kohl-Riggs, who had no money and even less name recognition, said he was running as a progressive Republican in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.
While the union fight spurred the recall, the campaign has been much broader and focused largely on Wisconsin's economy. Though the state's unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 2008, Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state between March 2011 and March 2012. Since Walker took office, only 5,900 private sector jobs have been created.
Polls heading into the primary have consistently shown Barrett ahead of the other Democrats, including one last week that showed him 17 points up on his nearest rival, Kathleen Falk. Barrett's emergence as the front-runner was aided by his strong name recognition across the state.
With just 3 percent of precincts reporting, Barrett led all challengers with 55 percent of the vote.
Jon Dzurak, a 55-year-old assistant principal in Milwaukee, said he initially was leaning toward Falk but decided to vote for Barrett because he was up in the polls and projected to fare better against Walker.
"Whichever one wins is going to get my vote," he said. "I just would like to see Scott Walker defeated. I've never seen a division in our state like this. I'm not talking to some of my friends right now because of it."
Keith Symonds, 49, of Madison, said he voted for Barrett because he thought he had the best chance at beating Walker next month.
"I though Falk was coming with just a little too much baggage," he said in reference to Falk's widespread union support. Barrett has had a rockier relationship with the unions, which Symonds said he thought would help him appeal to more independent voters.
Falk snared key endorsements from unions, including the AFL-CIO and the statewide teachers union. She promised to veto any budget that doesn't restore the collective bargaining rights Walker took away, while Barrett has merely promised to work toward restoring those rights.
Jessica Schafer, a 38-year-old marketing manager who lives in Milwaukee, said she voted for Falk, despite voting for Barrett two years ago.
"She is really interested in the environment and protecting the environment and our clean water. Also I think it would be unbelievably great to have a female governor," she said.
Some voters crossed party lines to play shenanigans in Wisconsin's open primary.
Walt Buschkopf supports Walker but voted for Falk because he believes she would be easier for the governor to beat. The 80-year-old retired dental equipment salesman from Sun Prairie said the recall should be used only when officeholders have committed a crime.
"I'm against the general public paying for a recall most of us don't want," he said.
Other Democrats on the ballot are Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout. They ran low-profile campaigns that failed to gain traction with voters. Gladys Huber is a Republican running as a Democrat.
Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican state senators also faced recall elections. There was an election in a fourth Senate district where the Republican incumbent targeted for recall resigned rather than run to keep her seat.
Turnout in the primary was projected to be 30 percent to 35 percent of eligible voters, which would be the highest for a primary in a governor's race since 38.9 percent in 1952.