When I reached United Wisconsin spokesman Erik Kirkstein by phone this afternoon, he was already breathless and having trouble coming up with the neat sound bites PR people are supposed to have on hand. He was clearly ready to celebrate.
"I guess you've heard—it's already been leaked," he said before exclaiming that the effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had gathered more than one million signatures—almost double what his opponents needed to trigger an election. "This has blown away even the highest of expectations!"
He's right. The movement needed a total of 540,000 signatures—a quarter of the votes cast in Walker's election last January. The group had already gotten more than 500,000 signatures just halfway through the 60-day period for gathering petitions, but they set a goal of 720,000 signatures to help buffer against legal challenges to potentially invalid signatures. Wisconsin Republicans and Tea Party groups cast doubt on the legitimacy of the signatures and criticized the new elections because they will cost taxpayers $9 million. With more than a million petitions gathered, Kirkstein believes it will be hard for Republicans to mount much of a challenge, but he promised that United Wisconsin would see the effort through even if a court battle arises. The Wisconsin Republican Party did not immediately return my messages. (Update: They got back to me. See their response here.)
At an event for Walker in Texas last week, critics of the recall attributed the campaign entirely to unions. Not surprisingly, Kirkstein was eager to credit the grassroots nature of the movement, thanking the "over 30,000 Wisconsinites as part of our volunteer army."
The army, however, may soon face some new, more complicated battles.
Unlike the California recall of Gray Davis, in which voters gave Davis an up or down vote and then selected one of his challengers, Wisconsin requires that voters choose between the incumbent and a challenger in one step. In other words, to be successful, the anti-Walker crowd must coalesce around an alternative. So far, it's not clear who that will be, though a few names, all state Democrats, have been bandied about.
Furthermore, though United Wisconsin benefits heavily from Democratic support, the group has remained nonpartisan in the recall effort; they prompted the recall but can't back a candidate. Kirkstein said the group will remain nonpartisan and not make endorsements but will stay active in the effort to unseat Walker.
With the state now in the national spotlight as the center of the labor battle, money from both sides will likely start pouring in. Walker has already been traveling around the country defending his record and raising cash for the race that even he agrees will happen.
The recall itself, said Kirkstein, is "pretty much going to have to be decided by the people of the state." Well, that and a whole lot of money from across the country.