MADISON, WIS. — Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is showing signs of pulling ahead of the Democratic competition in the race to determine who faces Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election that has become a nationally watched battle over union rights.
Polls show Mr. Barrett with a lead less than two weeks before election day, and a labor group supporting his chief opponent, Kathleen Falk, recently pulled its television ads off the air. A state teachers union that backed Ms. Falk now says it will support whoever emerges from the Democratic primary May 8.
“It’s pretty clear that Tom Barrett is winning the Democratic primary, which is remarkable considering those who are driving this recall support a different candidate,” said Mark Graul, a leading Republican strategist.
Mr. Barrett’s strength suggests that the recall election, which has attracted heavy spending by liberal and conservative interest groups from across the nation, could be a rematch of the 2010 governor’s race, in which Mr. Walker beat Mr. Barrett by 5 percentage points and then pressed a legislative initiative to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
Mr. Walker’s move triggered huge protests and unions led the effort that forced Mr. Walker to face a recall ballot, but they haven’t been able to make their favorite candidate his likely replacement in office.
Most of the state’s major unions, including the statewide teacher union, have backed Ms. Falk, the former county executive from the liberal capital city of Madison. Traditional Democratic backers including the Sierra Club, Voces de la Frontera and the Young Progressives of Wisconsin have also campaigned extensively for her. She has promised to veto any state budget that didn’t restore public workers’ bargaining rights.
Mr. Barrett, who has clashed with unions during his eight years as Milwaukee mayor, refused to make the same promise. But he is much better known across the state because of his 2010 campaign and is considered more acceptable to moderate Democrats.
The unions now face a predicament as Mr. Barrett appears to be leading the field. A Marquette University poll earlier this year showed him leading Ms. Falk 36 percent to 29 percent, and two recent polls have shown him with a solid lead. Two other Democratic candidates, longtime Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, have failed to gain traction.
Polls have indicated that the recall election in June should be close, with Mr. Walker appearing to hold a slight advantage over a Democratic opponent.
Mr. Barrett on Tuesday picked up significant backing from the statewide police union representing about 10,000 officers.
Ms. Falk’s campaign maintains that the larger union organizations backing her will deliver heavy turnout both in the primary election and in the general election in June.
By Elaine Donnelly
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