Wisconsin's divisive governor officially hit the campaign trail for the first time Tuesday, kicking off a statewide tour by speaking at a farm in front of a tractor, as Democrats filed signatures needed to take him on in a recall election.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been airing TV ads since November and traveling the country raising millions of dollars to fight the recall effort. But with the May 8 primary just a month away and the June 5 general election two months out, an intense ground campaign in which Walker and his opponents try to reach voters personally is under way.
The recall election spurred by anger over changes Walker pushed through the Legislature last year to effectively end collective bargaining rights for most public workers is the most prominent campaign in the nation after the presidential race. Walker, a national conservative hero, faces only the third gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history.
With his wife and two teenage sons in tow, Walker appeared at a farm in Dane, just 20 miles north of the capital of Madison. He stood in front of a parked John Deere tractor inside a barn and told about 50 supporters the recall is a test of political courage when it comes to which direction the state will go.
"We're headed in the right direction," Walker said. "We're turning things around. We're moving Wisconsin forward."
Retired steamfitter Mike Reynders, 65, of Fort Atkinson, held a sign that said "Union Steamfitters for Walker." Reynders said he supported Walker's proposals, which he said were justified to deal with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
"I'm a little discouraged," Reynders said of the recall. "I voted for this man to get four years."
Walker also planned campaign appearances in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Mosinee, Green Bay and Milwaukee. He was joined by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who's also the target of a recall election, as are four Republican state senators. One targeted senator, Pam Galloway, of Wausau, stepped down, but the election is proceeding to fill her seat.
Two of the state's best-known Democrats, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, are seeking their party's nomination to take on Walker, as are state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, and Secretary of State Doug La Follette. All said they turned in enough signatures Tuesday.
Four lesser known candidates filed: two Republicans, one independent and one Republican running as a Democrat. But Michael Mangan, a Republican from West Allis, failed to submit enough valid signatures.
The Republican Party recruited fake Democrats to run in all six recall elections, a move party officials said is designed to ensure each one has a primary and the general election for all six is held on the same day, June 5.
Four Democrats and one Republican running as a Democrat filed for lieutenant governor.
The Government Accountability Board was reviewing the papers to determine if all those who filed got the necessary 2,000 signatures.
Also Tuesday, Falk began running a 30-second campaign ad on cable channels across the state, becoming the first of the Democrats to hit the airwaves. The positive ad doesn't mention Walker and focuses on Falk's record as Dane County executive for 14 years between 1997 and 2011. A union-backed group has already been airing TV ads supporting Falk.
Walker said he had no preference on his opponent in the general election.
"Whoever is on the ballot is secondary to the money that's coming in from the unions out of state," he said.