By Chris Welch, CNN
ABOARD THE ‘A BETTER WISCONSIN’ BUS TOUR (CNN) – To Oriannah Paul and many on the right, embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is a hero who stood on principles and took the state out of the red and created a surplus.
To Lane Hall and many on the left, Walker is a man who should be removed from office for stripping collective bargaining rights and cutting education funding.
In March 2011, after weeks of bitter dispute highlighted by demonstrations inside the state Capitol, Walker and GOP allies in the Wisconsin State Legislature pushed through a bill to limit raises for public employees, except police and firefighters, to the rate of inflation. They also moved to bar unions from deducting dues from workers’ paychecks.
The past 16 months have been a nonstop slugfest, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and in some cases splitting families in half ideologically.
‘Where’s the civility?’
Paul, a tea party follower and founder of the Sheboygan Liberty Coalition, glows when she talks about Scott Walker. People know she’s a fan when she drives by in her pickup truck with its magnetic “Scott Walker is my hero” bumper stickers. But when she talks about the nastiness of the race, fear transforms her expression.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Paul says of the negativity. “Where’s the civility? Why can’t we be amicable?”
Paul says her car — plastered with her Walker bumper stickers — has been keyed, and she’s even been hit in the head with a sign, all because of the recall race.
“It’s unfortunate that there has to be so much division,” she says.
A dog groomer as of a few years ago, Paul has only just recently gotten involved in politics. It started with a general dislike of President Barack Obama, and it’s coming to a head with this one race, a race she believes will carry over into the general election.
She’s organizing rallies and taking part in various door-knocking and phone bank efforts.
“We are facing one of the most critical elections in the history of this country. What happens here will determine what happens across the country.”
Tim Phillips is president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group built around many of the same principles as the tea party. They’ve pumped more than $10 million into Wisconsin touting Walker’s policies. Phillips agrees there are larger implications at stake.
“It’s big for the people of Wisconsin and their economic future, but I think it’s even bigger nationally as well. I think every governor, every state legislator around the country is looking at Wisconsin, and they’re going, OK, if I got the courage to stand up and do what I think is right to get my state moving again … will someone have my back? And hopefully the answer is going to be, you bet.”
Americans for Prosperity launched its final effort in this campaign, a bus tour titled “A Better Wisconsin,” on Wednesday.
Paul was present at the Sheboygan stop.
The tour wraps up with a large rally hosted by the Racine chapter of the tea party and will not only include the AFP bus but the Tea Party Express bus as well. TPE launched a bus tour Saturday that wraps up on election day.
Democrats may not be planning any bus tours, but they did plan several rallies over the weekend. They’ve also been campaigning for Barrett in some rather unconventional ways.
‘This is a story … about Wisconsin’
Lane Hall is a 56-year-old English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Per Walker’s legislation — known as simply Act 10 — Hall’s benefits were cut by 8%. And while 8% may not sound as bad as others in the state have seen, Hall says the benefits package at UW-Milwaukee used to be the selling point at the school.
“It is seriously difficult now to both retain and attract quality people,” Hall said. “We are no longer competitive.”
Hall has never described himself as a political activist but, on this issue, he said to himself he “can’t sit this one out.”
He wanted to come up with a way to make eye-catching campaign signs for the after-dark hours. He and his wife built their very first sign out of battery-powered LED lights and it said simply, “Recall Walker.”
The signs have only gotten more elaborate, and the Overpass Light Brigade, as they’re known because they display their signs on bridges after dark, has grown into a routine party. Hall said they’ll sometimes have as many as 60 people at their “bridge parties” on pedestrian overpasses.
“We started to realize that the power of it is really in the community of volunteers.”
State Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski said those on the left are banking on that same community to show up to vote on Tuesday. Some public polls have given a slight single-digit edge to Walker, but Zielinski says the Democratic base is far from giving up hope. In fact, he says, internal numbers show it’s dead even.
“We’re too close,” Zielinski said. “You’re not going to fight for something for 16 months and then give up in the last couple of days.”
Team Walker has seen a whole host of rock star Republicans in recent weeks — Govs. Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal — while Team Barrett only just Friday got some star power of its own in former President Bill Clinton. Zielinski said none of that will matter.
“We love our national friends, we think they’re great, but this is a a story right now about Wisconsin.”
Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, both sides say they hope the vitriol subsides after election day. But they aren’t all that optimistic.
Said Paul, the newly minted Sheboygan activist: “I think the dividedness is not going away anytime soon.”