FITCHBURG, Wis. - A few dozen protesters shouted “Shame! Shame!’’ and “Recall Walker!’’ as Mitt Romney slipped inside a strip mall office where volunteers were making calls in support of Governor Scott Walker.
“I applaud your governor,’’ Romney told the volunteers. “He has convictions, and his convictions are focused on the interests of the people of Wisconsin.’’
In praising Walker, Romney is embracing a hero of the right who remains popular with the diehard Republican voters who will determine the outcome of Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary.
But he is also stepping into the middle of an emotionally charged, nationally watched battle over workers’ rights and collective bargaining, one that that has divided families and deeply polarized a state long known for amiable bipartisanship.
A year after thousands of demonstrators descended on the capitol in Madison to protest Walker’s efforts to slash the bargaining power and benefits of public workers, the state remains on the leading edge of a struggle over the loyalties of middle- and working-class voters.
Angry Democrats and union officials have initiated an election to recall Walker, the lieutenant governor, and four Republican state senators on June 5 that has all but overshadowed the primary here, consuming the time and money of political activists and animating countless, often bitter, dinner-table debates.
“It’s hard to get people to focus on anything but, because it’s such a contentious, negative environment,’’ said state Senator Alberta Darling, the cochairwoman of Romney’s Wisconsin campaign, who survived a previous round of recall elections against state legislators last summer.
While Romney is trying to harness the raw partisan energy surrounding the recall, his allegiance to the governor could be risky because Romney has been branded by opponents from both parties as a corporate profiteer indifferent to the plight of struggling wage earners.
Democrats are already gearing up to use Romney’s support for Walker against him in the general election, believing it will help them drive a wedge between the former Massachusetts governor and blue-collar voters across the industrial Midwest. One union, SEIU, has labeled him “Mitt Walker.’’
“If you’re going to come and praise a guy who may be recalled and rejected by the state before the fall, you better believe we’re going to talk about that,’’ said Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
Republicans, to be sure, reject the argument that the Walker backlash from the left will tarnish Romney’s standing with working-class voters in the fall.
“Our policies are geared toward creating jobs in the private sector through small businesses, and that’s where most of these blue-collar voters are employed so, if anything, Walker is the blue-collar candidate, and Romney is only helping himself by campaigning for him,’’ said Ben Sparks, a spokesman for the Wisconsin GOP.
Romney first campaigned for Walker in 2010, when Walker ran for governor, and then rallied to his side when he faced the protests over his proposal to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public workers, other than police officers and firefighters, who were exempted from the cutbacks.
As protesters jammed the Wisconsin State House in February 2011, Romney praised Walker for “doing what’s necessary to rein in out-of-control public sector pay and benefits,’’ urged his supporters to donate to the governor, and, through his political action committee, gave $5,000 to the Wisconsin Republican Party.
The law Walker signed in March 2011 sapped union power by limiting collective bargaining for most public employees to wages, increasing the amount workers pay for health insurance and pensions, and giving union members the right not to pay dues. On Friday, a federal judge upheld most of the law, but said union dues could automatically be withdrawn from public workers’ paychecks.
Walker argued the bill was necessary to help the state close a budget deficit without resorting to massive layoffs. Opponents said it was a politically motivated attack on labor. Walker’s push led to similar efforts in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Meanwhile, the protests it unleashed helped spark the Occupy movement.
“A year ago, Scott Walker tried to drive the death nail in the labor movement and the middle class and people said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re not going to let that happen here,’ ’’ said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
Unlike Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has campaigned with Romney and been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, Walker has not endorsed any presidential candidate, and has rarely appeared in public as they have barnstormed his state.
And yet the mere mention of his name provokes passion, tension, and some fatigue among recall-addled Wisconsites.
At Dave’s Restaurant, in Waukesha, a conservative city 18 miles west of Milwaukee, the waitress, Samantha Copus, 21, said her aunt, a laid-off teacher, and her grandparents strongly support the recall, while her father, a construction foreman, wants to see the governor returned to office.
“In my family,’’ Copus said, “we’ve learned not to talk about it if you want to have a good time.’’
Ryan Pederson, 33, who owns a ceramics shop, lamented that the debate has pitted the need to treat workers fairly against the need to control state spending.
“Politically, it feels like both sides have hijacked great ideals,’’ said Pederson, who is torn about how to vote in the recall, but leans toward former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in the primary.
Chris Maurer, 62, a Republican activist who works in the Waukesha field office where volunteers are making calls to defend Walker, said more than a few times the phone has rung with callers denouncing the governor and the volunteers.
“It has split families,’’ he said. “I feel pretty lucky my entire family is conservative.’’
Polls confirm just how divided the state is.
An NBC/Marist poll released Friday indicated 48 percent of Wisconsin voters approve of the job Walker is doing and 48 percent disapprove. Voters are also split over the recall. While several Democrats are weighing candidacies, the poll indicated that a generic Democrat would hold a 48 percent to 46 percent lead - within the margin of error - over Walker.
In the primary, Romney leads Santorum in polling, 40 percent to 33 percent.
President Reagan was the last Republican to win Wisconsin in a presidential election, in 1984.
But both parties believe the groundwork they are laying for the recall now will make the state a fiercely contested battleground in the fall. Republicans have opened 21 field offices, made more than 1 million phone calls, and enlisted thousands of volunteers to defend Walker.
Democrats and their union allies, meanwhile, gathered more than 900,000 signatures to recall Walker, nearly twice the necessary number, and have energized their own activists.
“We have an organization on steroids,’’ said Zielinski, the Democratic Party spokesman.