MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Organizers of an effort to kick Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker out of office said Thursday they've collected nearly enough signatures to force a recall election, though their financial backing is far behind the Republican governor's fundraising.
The state Democratic Party, unions and disgruntled citizens started organizing amid growing anger over Walker's polarizing measure approved in March that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for public workers. Now, the United Wisconsin coalition reports that it collected 507,533 in 28 days; the group must submit 540,208 signatures by Jan. 17 to force the recall.
"The people of Wisconsin have said enough is enough," Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said.
But the coalition and Democrats have raised roughly $1.4 million since July, compared to the $5.1 million that Walker raised over the same period, according to reports from both sides Thursday.
Republican Party spokesman Ben Sparks dismissed the signature count, saying voters who elected Walker have no desire to return the state to Democratic control.
"We have no doubt the Democrats are rallying their left-wing base around their blatant power grab for the governor's mansion," Sparks said in a statement.
Republicans also pushed back with a lawsuit Thursday challenging the state board that oversees elections in Wisconsin, saying it doesn't do enough to make sure the names on recall petitions are valid.
The Government Accountability Board will review the petitions to ensure there are enough signatures to trigger recall contests, but it will only verify that the names are accompanied by a Wisconsin address and dated within the recall period. It's up to the targeted office holder or other challengers to contest the validity of signatures and ferret out any duplicates.
The lawsuit, filed by Walker's campaign and the head of the state Republican Party, argues that the review process is unconstitutional and asks a judge to order the board to throw out duplicate and fake names, and signatures with illegible addresses.
Board director Kevin Kennedy said the board is following the same state law and procedure that have been in place since the late 1980s. "Since then, these rules have been used in every state and local recall petition effort against incumbents of both parties," he said.
Circulators are also attempting to recall Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, which requires the same number of signatures. The group did not give an update on how many signatures had been collected against Kleefisch, but Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski said they mirrored Walker's total.
United Wisconsin said its goal is to collect more than 720,000 signatures by the deadline.
The accountability board said it plans to ask a court to get an extension for its review from 31 days to 60 days. Challengers have just 10 days under the law to contest signatures, but Walker is also planning to seek a delay.
It's unclear when actual recall elections may take place, but given the likely court challenges, few think they will happen before May.
On Thursday, Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said the public is losing confidence in the board's ability to handle the recall elections fairly and believes the state should consider a new structure for dealing with elections and ethics violations. Fitzgerald said he would favor a system similar to the one that preceded the creation of the board in 2007, when two separate boards with partisan appointments handled such issues.
In addition to the Walker recall, Democrats are circulating petitions targeting four incumbent Republican state senators. Two Republicans were ousted in recall elections this summer, leaving the GOP with a 17-16 majority in the Senate. Republicans also control the state Assembly, which gave them the power to push through Walker's union measure this year over Democratic objections and the exodus of all 14 Democratic state senators to Illinois for three weeks.
Anger over the union bill led to protests in February and March that lasted for weeks and grew as large 100,000 people, making Wisconsin the center of the national fight over union rights.
Democrats have an announced candidate to challenge Walker. Tate, the Democratic Party chairman, has said they are in no rush to name someone who would then be subject to Republican attacks. Democrats want to make the election a referendum on Walker.
A number of Democrats have said they are interested in running, but the highest profile potential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, has repeatedly said he has no intention of getting into the race.
Walker has been running campaign ads since Nov. 14, the night before the recall effort started, and he reportedly filed his first spending report Thursday. Americans for Prosperity, the conservative anti-tax and regulation group founded with the support of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has also hit the airwaves in support of the governor.
Walker has defended the collective bargaining changes, and other moves such as cutting public education aid, as necessary to bring the state's budget back into balance at a time when it faced a $3.6 billion shortfall.