Wisconsin residents are set to render their verdict on Republican Gov. Scott Walker two years into his term in a recall election Tuesday that many say holds national implications.
The embattled Walker holds a narrow edge over his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, according to recent Badger State polling, but experts say with the deeply divided electorate, voter turnout will be the race's key factor.
Walker came under fire early after taking office in 2010 after he unveiled legislation to curb collective bargaining rights for public sector unions and require increased contributions for their health care and retirement plans. The proposals sparked massive demonstrations in the Wisconsin State House and prompted the state's Democratic senators to flee in hopes of preventing the measures' passage, but also crowned Walker a Tea Party champion As the weeks went on, money and people flooded in from out of state with crowds reaching up to 100,000 at one point, according to media accounts.
Walker, arguing that the state's finances were in ruin and that the steps were necessary to get the fiscal house in order, eventually was able to secure passage for the legislation. But the move polarized the electorate and Democrats were able to easily collect the 1 million signatures necessary to force Walker into a recall election.
But now that the campaigning has been going on in earnest, the focus has shifted from unions and collective bargaining rights to the most immediate issue facing voters: jobs and the economy.
"The campaign rhetoric over the last two weeks has not been much about unions or collective bargaining—that's not been the centerpiece of the Barrett campaign," says Barry Burden, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"It's the state of the economy and whether the state is losing or gaining jobs," he says. "There's a vigorous debate about that and whether Walker has done the right things with the state budget, whether his cuts were too draconian or where things necessary to get the state moving."
Burden adds that another top issue concerns ethical and legal issues surrounding Walker's time in office.
"There's an investigation going on that has tagged some of his affiliates," he says. "Some of them have been indicted or given immunity, but he has fired back saying that some of Mayor Barrett's time in Milwaukee has been tainted by corruption or poor performance or something else. There are just a lot of things on the table for an election that was just about collective bargaining."
Republican leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Wisconsin-native Rep. Paul Ryan have all sent out fundraising pitches or campaigned on behalf of Walker, while high-profile Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Rev. Jesse Jackson have more recently made on-the-ground appearances in hopes of sparking voter enthusiasm.
The race has captured the national spotlight because Walker, along with other Republican state lawmakers, were swept into office in the Tea Party fervor of 2009 and have aggressively pursued conservative principles of cutting spending, curbing union power and refusing to raise taxes. The recall will shed insight into whether or not voters have buyer's remorse.
"Walker is completely steadfast—he has a somewhat simple message and it's bold, he had it back in 2010 and he sticks with it today," Burden says. "He believes the state is broke, that there's no room to collect more revenue that we need to reduce spending and we need to create jobs, and that the public sector was a drag on the economy. It's been promises made and promises kept."
Barrett, on the other hand, represents more of the traditional Wisconsin politician, he says, one that pledges to be a consensus builder.
"He says his plan would not be one line, it would be bringing people together, having a conversation, trying to find solutions, talking across party lines," Burden says. "He's easy for a lot of Wisconsinites to relate to. He's a Milwaukee kid, his name is Tom, and you can understand where he comes from—he has a human touch."
Despite the massive fundraising that's come from out-of-state—more than $60 million, according to the Associated Press—there haven't been many particularly influential television advertisements, Burden says.
"A lot of people felt like the ads would not matter because people had made up their minds and the state is so polarized, and I think some of that money has been wasted," he says. One ad, however, depicting Barrett as a poor mayor of Milwaukee on issues like crime and unemployment has probably been the most effective, Burden says.
"It just raised concerns about the alternative to Scott Walker," he says. "In the end, this is an election between two people, even if collective bargaining or the budget becomes the central issue."
Turnout is expected to be as high as 60-65 percent, more than the number of voters that turned out during the 2010 election, but less than a typical presidential year.
Also on the recall ballot are four Republican state senators and the lieutenant governor.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.