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Tom Barrett, the strongest Democratic challenger, to take on Scott Walker in Wisconsin

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Tom Barrett (Morry Gash/AP)

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett effortlessly won the recall nomination Tuesday night and is now headed for a rematch with his old rival from 18 months ago, Republican Gov. Scott Walker. If polls prove accurate and statewide campaign experience is taken into account, Barrett represents Democrats' best chance of toppling Walker in the June 5 election.

Surveys conducted in recent weeks by Rasmussen ReportsMarquette Law School and Public Policy Polling as well as others show a tight race between Walker and Barrett, sometimes within the margin of error. Barrett's closest challenger, former county executive Kathleen Falk, had polled far below Barrett against Walker. Of the four candidates running in the Democratic race, Barrett was the only one with experience waging a statewide campaign, skills he gained from his 2010 race against Walker.

In the wake of Barrett's win—he trounced Falk 58 to 34 percent—Republicans are busy playing down any Democratic celebrations, emphasizing that there's little excitement and a lot of division remaining over the mayor's nomination.

"It's been a relatively divided primary," Ben Sparks, spokesman for the state Republican Party told Yahoo News Wednesday. With loyalties split between individual unions, the Democratic establishment and Barrett himself, Democrats are left trying to unify and galvanize their base. That's a stark contrast to the Republican party, claims Sparks. "We're a singular, unified grassroots operation," he said.

There's been speculation in the state that Barrett was behind the cancellation of a unity rally last week, Sparks claimed. But the state Democratic Party said it canceled the rally, adding that the Republicans are simply imagining conflict.

"People are pretty united, and that's what's scaring [Republicans]," said Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski, who spoke with Yahoo News as he returned from a unity event Wednesday held at Barrett's home. Barrett's former primary opponents pledged their support for the new nominee at the event.

"He's a healer... he's somebody that can unite not just this party but the state," said Zielinski about Barrett.

It's ridiculous for Republicans to accuse Democrats of disunity when Walker single-handedly, with his 2011 war on public unions, turned Wisconsin into a very divisive state, he added.

"I've never seen the state so torn up, so torn apart," Zielinski, a 40-year-old Wisconsin native, said Wednesday. "Walker will do more to mobilize the base than any other politician in modern history... even Joseph McCarthy."

Unity has been on the Democrats' side from the beginning of the recall said Zielinski. The petition itself to recall the governor drew more than 1 million signatures. Since Wisconsin voters don't register by party, the petition and the information gleaned from those who signed it give Democrats a ready list of potential supporters, added Zielinski. The party is already using it.

Democrats readily concede they will be heavily outspent in this race, but Zielinski expressed confidence in their "shoe leather ground game."

Walker has reportedly raised over $25 million thus far for his recall campaign. Compare that to Barrett's reportedly meager $1 million. (Outside groups are assisting both.)

A Rasmussen Reports poll released Thursday shows likely voters preferring Walker over Barrett 50 to 45 percent with a plus or minus 4.5 percent margin of error.

Other polls similarly show a close race between Barrett and Walker. A Marquette Law School survey (pdf) conducted Apr. 26-29 found Barrett besting Walker among registered voters 47 to 46 percent, and Walker narrowly beating Barrett among likely voters 48 to 47 percent. Both results are within the poll's margins of error: plus or minus 3.8 percentage points for the full sample and 4.2 points for the sample of likely voters.

A Public Policy Polling survey conducted April 13-15 for the liberal site Daily Kos had Walker beating Barrett 50 to 45 percent among likely voters. That poll's margin of error was plus or minus 2.9 percent.

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