The petition drive to recall and remove Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has surpassed all expectations, collecting more than 300,000 signatures in less than two weeks.

The truly remarkably thing about the total is not, however, that it is so large.

What’s truly remarkable is where the signatures are coming from: Rural and small-town Wisconsin communities are contributing disproportionately high numbers of signatures.

No one expected the recall drive would move so quickly.

No one expected United Wisconsin to gather more than half the required signatures in less than two weeks. No one expected whole counties to reach their signature goals in the first week. No one expected conservative communities in Republican regions of the state to take the lead in collecting recall signatures against a Republican governor.

But it is happening.

Wisconsin has one of the highest thresholds in the nation for recalling statewide officials. Citizens must gather signatures equaling 25 percent of the turnout in the previous gubernatorial election. That’s 540,000 signatures. And they must be collected in just 60 days. (Of course, to avoid challenges, a “cushion” of additional signatures is needed.)

In California — the last state where a governor was successfully recalled — citizens only had to gather signatures equaling 12 percent of the turnout in the last election, and they had 160 days.

How could Wisconsin reach a threshold twice as high in less than half the time? Not by building a movement rooted only in liberal precincts of Madison, as the governor and his amen corner keep claiming. And not by relying merely on Democrats.

To be successful, the recall drive against Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch had to attract support from independents and Republicans. And that is precisely what is happening.

As Steve Smith, a boiler operator at Wisconsin’s Southern Center for the Developmentally Disabled, explained while he gathered petition signatures Thanksgiving morning in Burlington, “A lot of the people who are working the hardest on this recall aren’t big Democrats. I voted Democrat and Republican. And a lot of the people who are signing the petitions say they voted for Walker. So this goes way beyond Democrats.”

Smith’s point is a critical one.

Burlington, a Racine County city that voted for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and John McCain, has a booming recall movement. Indeed, while Barack Obama received 2,424 votes in Burlington in 2008 (compared with McCain’s 2,567), local recall activists had already collected 2,500 signatures in the first two weeks.

Thus, even in Republican-leaning areas, the recall is exceeding goals — and exceeding the 2008 performance of the most popular Democratic presidential nominee in decades. That earned a recent front-page headline in the Burlington Standard-Press newspaper: “Recall Effort Has a Visible Presence in Conservative Burlington.”

In fact, the recall effort has a visible presence in conservative and Republican-leaning areas across Wisconsin.

The first counties to approach their goals for the entire recall drive have been rural ones — all of which send at least some Republicans to the Legislature.

Indeed, a number of counties that backed Walker in 2010 are leading the pack when it comes to producing recall signatures.

In Columbia County, where Walker won 52 percent of the vote last year, more than 10,033 voters have signed recall petitions — well over 45 percent of the total gubernatorial turnout of 2010.

In Pierce County, where Walker got 53 percent of the vote, more than 4,700 voters have signed — well over 25 percent of the 2010 gubernatorial turnout.

In Oneida County, where Walker took 55 percent of the vote, almost 3,700 voters have signed — well over 20 percent of the 2010 gubernatorial turnout.

Walker has done great harm to Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Kenosha, Janesville, Beloit and other urban communities. But the places where his combination of job-killing economic schemes and cuts to basic services and public education are doing the most damage are not big cities. He is pushing small cities, villages and rural communities to the brink.

Under his “leadership,” Wisconsin now leads the nation in job losses. And some of the hardest-hit counties are far from Wisconsin’s big cities.

The battering the state’s rural and small-town economy has taken under Walker is coupled with divisive policies and extreme cuts.

The governor’s assault on collective-bargaining rights has strained relations at the local level. And cutting state funding for public services and public education to fund tax cuts for out-of-state corporations has been especially devastating for rural communities, small towns and small cities.

Surveys of school administrators show that the vast majority of the state’s school districts have had to make cuts, and are anticipating even deeper cuts. Communities have been forced to discuss closing schools. Just last week, an advisory committee for the Sauk Prairie School District voted to recommend that the school board close an elementary school.

Walker has not just cut aid to schools and communities. He has promoted policies that, while popular with his out-of-state donors, threaten to make it dramatically harder for local officials to do their jobs.

Walker seeks to undermine the ability of school boards and town boards to address budget challenges. By taking away the flexibility that has been essential to budgeting in Wisconsin’s smaller cities, villages and towns, Walker proposes to make hard times worse in communities where there is little margin for error.

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