By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin's controversial Republican Governor Scott Walker will face a recall election on June 5 over a new law he championed that strips public sector unions of most power, becoming the first U.S. governor to face a no-confidence vote in nearly a decade.
The five-member Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which manages elections, voted unanimously on Friday to formally certify more than 900,000 signatures calling for Walker's ouster, setting in motion the recall election.
Democrats and labor unions, outraged by the law they see as an attack on the rights of workers and their unions, gathered nearly double the number of signatures needed to force a recall vote.
A Democratic primary will be held on May 8 to choose Walker's opponent in the recall vote. The Democrat who could face Walker is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a rematch of the 2010 election narrowly won by Walker, although Barrett has not yet formally entered the race.
No elected U.S. state governor has faced a recall vote since California's Gray Davis was ousted in 2003 and succeeded by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Walker set off a firestorm shortly after he was elected when he pushed through the Republican-led legislature a law stripping public sector unions of most of their powers.
The law forced local and state workers such as teachers to pay part of the cost of health insurance and pension, and took away union power to negotiate wage increases beyond the level of inflation. But what most infuriated unions was a provision that required them to be recertified by a vote of membership every year, which threatened their existence.
The law sparked weeks of pro-union protests at the capital in Madison, and Senate Democrats fled the state in a futile attempt to stop the measure from becoming law.
Walker said the measure was needed to close a budget gap and put Wisconsin on a firmer financial footing.
The stakes are high for both sides in the recall election. Organized labor sees Walker's agenda as trying to bust unions and is concerned that if the law is allowed to stand it could encourage other states to do the same. Already, Indiana has approved a so-called "right to work" law allowing union members to opt out of paying dues, and Ohio tried but failed last year to force through a law curbing union power.
Wisconsin also is expected to be a closely contested state in the presidential election in November. President Barack Obama last year openly supported the union opposition to Walker and leading national Republicans have sided with the governor.
"If Walker wins, it will be public ratification of what he has done over the past 18 months. If he loses, it will be evidence that Democrats and their allies can still mobilize public support for their positions," said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, speaking hours before the recall election was formally announced.
Despite the success of the recall petition drive to oust Walker, a poll this week suggested Wisconsin is closely divided, with Walker holding a slight edge over Barrett.
Barrett, who is standing for reelection as Milwaukee mayor against token opposition on April 3, has said he would announce whether he is running for governor before Tuesday. He can run for governor while remaining mayor.
Barrett held a fundraiser on Wednesday in Milwaukee, attended by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, fueling speculation that he is leaning toward a gubernatorial bid.
According to the poll of 707 registered and eligible voters released by Marquette Law School earlier this week, Barrett would win a primary against current Democrat candidates with 36 percent of the vote.
Among the other Democrats, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk would receive 29 percent of the vote, and state Senator Kathleen Vinehout and Secretary of State Doug La Follette would receive 8 percent each. Another 17 percent of respondents were undecided.
Walker still had a slight edge over Barrett in a general election at 49 percent to 47 percent. Walker led Falk 49 percent to 45 percent. The Democratic primary poll had a 5.2 percent margin of error and the general election poll 3.8 percent.
There are few undecided voters, given how polarized politics have become in the state over the last year.
Money is pouring into Wisconsin from across the nation to help both sides in the recall fight. Since the beginning of 2011, Walker has raised $12 million, some of it from big donor Super PACS. Unions are expected to generously fund whoever the Democrats choose to face Walker.
Even before the election was formally launched on Friday, television attack ads had begun. A pro-Walker ad accused the potential Democratic candidates of seeking higher taxes and killing jobs in the state, while an anti-Walker ad said he had cut public school funding.
The election board also unanimously approved recall elections for Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators who voted for the union curbs.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Paul Thomasch)