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Analysis: Wisconsin now tougher for Obama, but still uphill climb for Romney

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
June 6, 2012 -- Updated 2044 GMT (0444 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Republicans confident recall results signal state will turn red in November
  • GOP certainly laid vital groundwork that could put the state in play this fall
  • But Republicans are still working against historical forces in Wisconsin

(CNN) -- Republicans scored a decisive victory Tuesday in the bitter Wisconsin recall election as Gov. Scott Walker beat back Democratic challenger Tom Barrett and his organized labor allies to keep his seat in Madison.

But will it matter in November?

Unfortunately for a pundit class that has been eager to ascribe sweeping national meaning to a race that hinged entirely on local issues, the answer is... maybe.

National GOP officials, eager to make hay out of the results, claim otherwise.

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"It's a lean-red state right now," boasted Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, a Kenosha native.

"There is not a state in all of America where Republicans know more about every voter than Wisconsin," he told CNN. "And this was a message election about spending and debt and the size of government. That will be the central question of November."

Republicans certainly laid vital groundwork that will put the state in play this fall if Mitt Romney and his allies choose to spend money here, a likely prospect considering the Republican National Committee is chaired by a Wisconsinite.

Working hand-in-hand with the state Republican Party, the RNC used the recall effort to identify four million potential voters, an invaluable achievement in a state where people do not register by party.

Door-to-door canvassers used iPads, iPhones and iPods to feed voter information directly back to the RNC's data center in Washington.

The party also opened 24 volunteer centers statewide to assist in the Walker effort, and all of those offices will be converted into presidential victory centers beginning Wednesday.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has about 20 offices in Wisconsin, though its renowned field organizers have been on the ground for much longer, especially in Obama-friendly college towns and urban centers.

As for Romney, he mostly tiptoed around the recall fight like the president, declining to campaign in the state for Walker. But the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is likely to make an appearance in the state soon, sources tell CNN.

Romney tried to jump on Walker's coattails late Tuesday with a congratulatory tweet, saying the results "will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin."

Romney reacts to Wisconsin recall vote

A range of national conservative groups, from the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads to the Republican Governors Association to the Tea Party Patriots, seized on the outcome to proclaim victory over organized labor and tie the results to Obama's re-election chances.

"This is a victory for keeping promises and delivering results for working families, and a defeat for the broken politics of Barack Obama and big government unions," said American Crossroads president Steven Law. "On to November!"

To be sure, Obama now faces a greater challenge in Wisconsin than he did in 2008, when he thumped John McCain here by 14 points.

A recent poll from Marquette University Law School showed the president with a 49% favorable rating in the state, a poor showing, but still better than Romney's 40%.

The final result in Wisconsin come November may look more like it did in 2000, when Al Gore bested George W. Bush by 4,500 votes, or 2004, when John Kerry beat Bush by 11,000 votes.

"Wisconsin has always been a battleground," said state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat representing parts of Milwaukee. "We are red with blue polka dots or blue with red polka dots. You really can't tell who has the majority because it flips and it changes all the time."

But despite their mechanical advances and the base-energizing power of the recall, Republicans are still working against historical forces in Wisconsin.

The state has not voted for a Republican on the presidential level since 1984.

And if the GOP wants to use Tuesday's election as an omen for November, they can't ignore Obama's strong showing in exit polls.

Even with turnout lower than it was in 2008 -- and lower than it is expected to be this November -- voters who participated in the recall told exit pollsters they preferred Obama to Romney by a 51-44 margin.

Obama also bested Romney on questions of which candidate would do more to help the middle class and improve the economy.

"If Mitt Romney couldn't beat the President among the electorate that turned out today to reelect Walker, or with a spending gap that favored the GOP, he faces an incredibly steep path in November," an Obama campaign official noted.

Rank-and-file Republicans who volunteered for Walker in the race's closing days differed on whether a recall win would translate to a Romney victory this fall.

"People are fired up, and I think it's going to make a huge difference," said Jeff Komp, an insurance broker from Erin Township who backed Walker. "It's going to carry forward and help the momentum in November."

Jennifer Passig, a Walker supporter from Cedarburg who made get-out-the-vote phone calls for the governor, had a different take.

"I think if Romney sticks the course he will have a lot of support here, but I just don't know if he will win the state," she said. "We always seem to have Republican governors and Democratic governors. I don't know why. It's really strange."

This weekend's Wisconsin Democratic Convention in Appleton is certain to be consumed by hand-wringing and second-guessing about the recall, a grim prospect for one of the convention's guest speakers: Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who may face questions about why national Democrats did not do more to help Barrett.

Democrats at Barrett's election night headquarters searched for silver linings in the loss, arguing that the recall race engaged their party's base even as Democrats were outspent by Walker and outside conservative groups by a 7-1 margin.

But others admitted that the loss was a painful blow for a party that was brimming with confidence just hours earlier.

Mahlon Mitchell, a union leader who lost his bid for lieutenant governor on Tuesday, acknowledged that Democrats have to find a way to re-energize their base after a bitter loss.

"I'm not going to downplay now that we lost," Mitchell said. "There's no doubt this did have national ramifications, but it shows we've got an uphill battle. But this is not over by any means."

Walker's win bolsters tea party, weakens Democrats

A victory for curbs on public worker unions

Recalling a governor is rare -- trying to, not so much

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