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Wisconsin recall: Exit polls suggest vote's too close to call

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.

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.

“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.

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.”