While the presidential election is still five months away, two pivotal downballot elections are taking place in the next two weeks that will shed significant light on the political state of play this year. Next Tuesday, Wisconsin voters will decide whether to recall GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who implemented controversial budget reforms that also curtailed the influence of unions. On June 12, Democrats will be attempting to hold the Arizona House seat of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in a special election where entitlements have been a leading issue.
The Arizona special election, between Republican Jesse Kelly and Democrat Ron Barber (Giffords' former aide), will test the potency of the Democratic attack on Social Security/Medicare. The race is being run in a senior-heavy district where Democrats have attacked Kelly, a tea party activist, for supporting entitlement cuts. (Take a look at the DCCC's new ad here.) Indeed, in his losing 2010 campaign against Giffords, he was about as outspoken on the issue as any candidate would get. But Republicans believe that they've battled to a draw by bringing up Obama's health care law and accusing the plan of making cuts to Medicare. Obama's numbers are weak in the Republican-leaning district; GOP strategists believe the president's unpopularity could overwhelm Barber's compelling story and strength as a candidate.
In Wisconsin, Walker looks like the favorite to hang on, but his margin of victory would also be telling. If Walker matches his six-point victory over Democrat Tom Barrett in 2010, it would be a sign that this November's electorate will be a lot closer to the one that swept Republicans into power in the midterms than the one that swept Obama into office in 2008. Republicans, led by the Daniels/Christie reformist wing of the party, would be emboldened to talk up Paul Ryan's budget, be more antagonistic towards labor and pressure Mitt Romney to make it a key part of his campaign message.