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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.

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“Walker is a test case whether you can actually take on public sector unions and win,” says Mr. Shober at Lawrence University. “Whether that message will resonate [in Wisconsin] is a test it will resonate in similar purple-ish states” – neither Republican red or Democratic blue.

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Walker is framing his fight in those larger terms. In a February speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, he said the recall election is “fundamentally about courage” to fight “big government union bosses” and establishing long-term structural reforms to balance state budgets.

Winning on Tuesday will mean “sending a message, not only in Madison. It will be about sending a message to Springfield [Illinois] and St. Paul [Minnesota] and Columbus [Ohio] and Indianapolis and Austin [Texas] and in the halls of Congress,” Walker said in that speech. A failure, he added, will be a setback for “any courageous act in American politics for at least a decade, if not a generation.”

To make his case, Walker has turned around several Democratic talking points, suggesting that his reforms will help, not harm, the middle class and generate jobs, not stall job growth. Those ideas could resonate so long as the economy remains stagnant, says national Republican strategist Jim Innocenzi, who is based in Alexandria, Va.

“If the economy was good right now nationwide, then that messaging would work [for Democrats], but they’ve been an abysmal failure,” says Mr. Innocenzi, who last worked on the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).

Walker can point to a falling unemployment rate – 6.7 percent in April, compared with 7.5 percent one year earlier – to show his reforms are making an impact, Innocenzi says.

Yet the economy is also playing into the Democratic strategy. Walker campaigned on a promise to add 250,000 new jobs in the private sector by the end of his term. By February, only 8,100 new jobs were added since he took office, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

There are also data that show Wisconsin’s public and private sectors saddled with sluggish job growth; the state lost 21,400 nonfarm jobs in the 12 months between April 2011 and April 2012, which put the state last in the nation by that measure, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, the recall in Wisconsin could influence the political conversation for months or perhaps even years.

“The recall is the only election between now and the presidential election that will get national coverage," says Mr. Peterson at the University of Wisconsin. "It is a momentum-setter.” 

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