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Wisconsin recall: a big deal for GOP conservatives, not just Scott Walker (+video)

For the conservative wing of the Republican Party, the Wisconsin recall election on Tuesday is a test of core GOP doctrine. Of course, Gov. Scott Walker's career hangs in the balance, too.

By Staff writer / June 5, 2012

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (r.) and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (l.) greet J & D Manufacturing employee Steve Poppe during a visit Monday, June 4, to the company in Altoona, Wis. The governor made campaign stops at six of the state's largest cities on the day before Wisconsin's historic recall election.

Steve Kinderman/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram/AP

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For Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s Tuesday's recall election is about whether his bid to slash state spending, particularly at the expense of public-sector labor unions, will cost him his job.

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For Republicans more broadly, the recall tests whether pragmatic-minded voters in a swing state validate or repudiate the conservative mantra that the best path to prosperity starts by shrinking the size and scope of government. 

Perhaps no other governor has been more radical in this cause since 2010 than Governor Walker, who took on the Republicans’ historic bogeyman – unions – and won. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has praised Walker for reining “in the excesses that have permeated the public-sector union and government negotiations over the years.” Other Republican governors are lining up to follow his lead. Walker could be a hero and his platform a model for the party – if he isn’t recalled.

Indeed, a clear-cut win in this swing state would raise Walker's stock on the national stage, adding his name to a shortlist of Republicans who could be tapped to run for a higher office.  

“He can get the base out in a way that Romney can’t,” says Arnold Shober, a government professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. “He has a name now.”

Coming into Tuesday's election, Walker led Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, 52 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, according to the latest poll from Marquette University Law School. However, a poll released late Sunday by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C,. shows a much tighter race, at 50 percent for Walker and 47 percent for Mr. Barrett. Democrats insist that they are competitive and that their union-led get-out-the-vote effort will offset Walker's advantage in campaign cash and advertising.

If Walker were to be voted out, it would be a setback for his entire party, diminishing Mr. Romney and his agenda by association, says Geoff Peterson, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. But a Walker win could work against President Obama by reinforcing the Republican claim that even swing states like Wisconsin are ready to consider a sweeping small-government agenda.

“The [recall] election will be the signal for which side has more credibility in that messaging,” says Kathleen Walsh, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The essence of Walker’s agenda is the fundamental Republican tenet that budget-balancing should occur by cutting spending and limiting the size of state government, not raising taxes. Other Republican governors have signaled their support for such plans, but Walker remains the standardbearer, which gives the recall a particular significance.

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