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How a new cadre of Wis. Republicans could change the whole GOP

Darren Hauck / Reuters

Scott Walker embraces his family as he celebrates his victory in the recall election against Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in Waukesha, Wis., on June 5, 2012.


MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's resounding victory over political foes who had sought his removal from office cemented the ascendancy of a new class of Republicans whose political style was forged in the Badger State.

Walker survived an effort led by Democrats and labor unions to oust him by way of a popular recall; an effort first initiated after the governor pursued legislation stripping organized labor of their collective bargaining rights in the very birthplace of those unions.

The campaign drew national headlines because of its implications for unions, but the stakes were equally high for a new generation of reform-minded conservatives. Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan, also of Wisconsin, represent the vanguard of this wave of Republicans, underscoring the extent to which the state has become a deep bench for emerging GOP leaders.

First Read: Walker wins and labor loses

"We're a state that's produced a lot of great leaders, Paul and Scott being good examples of those," said Ray Boland, a former state veterans affairs official in Wisconsin in attendance at a Walker campaign event on Monday. Boland is hoping to join this class of Republicans this fall; he's running for Congress as a Republican against veteran Democratic Rep. Ron Kind.

Wisconsin has produced some of the GOP's most visible leaders in recent years — Walker, Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. This troika all grew up in the state's southeast corner, and cut their political teeth in the post-Reagan era of the GOP.

They're unified not just by common roots, but a similar approach to politics.

This generation of Republicans, Priebus said last week in an interview with NBCPolitics.com, are "down-to-earth relatable people that, if they have to grab a weapon and run up the hill, they will."

Joshua Lott / Reuters

Reince Priebus introduces Mitt Romney during the Republican National Committee State Chairman's National Meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., April 20, 2012.

Walker and Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, have fashioned themselves as earnest politicians who profess an interest in accomplishments over their own political careers. (Nevermind the fact that each has long been involved in state and federal politics.)

"Tonight, we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions," Walker said Tuesday.

To be sure, these Republicans have attracted intense support and opposition. Ryan and Walker don't adopt the most strident rhetoric, relative to many other conservatives. But their aw-shucks approach to politics belies the exceptionally aggressive reforms they're willing to pursue in hopes of cutting deficits.

Walker emerges victorious in Wisconsin recall

"It’s an earnestness: here’s what I believe, here’s why I believe it, here’s what I think is the right thing to do, and if you elect me, I’ll go do this," Ryan said in an interview with NBCPolitics.com. "And then you get elected and do it. It’s that simple; it’s liberating."

That message has particular traction during this age of austerity, when concern about mounting public debt has become one of the top political issues.

Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" is an audacious budget that calls for major changes to Medicare and Social Security. Walker's effort to curb public employee unions' collective bargaining rights earned him the headache of Tuesday's recall election.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd and the panel analyze Scott Walker's victory in Tuesday's Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, whether the result implies any national impact, and Congress's plan on defense spending in the near future.

These Republicans are lightning rods, but because of their deeds, rather than their words.

It's also why presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has tried to tap into this kind of Wisconsin-style politics in mounting his own campaign versus President Obama. Ryan is rumored to be on the short list of candidates to round out the GOP ticket, in no small part because it would double-down on this frank genre of politics.

(The Wisconsin congressman wouldn't even entertain a question about the vice presidency.)

The Wisconsin way has also fueled Republican hopes of winning the state in the Electoral College this fall. The state has voted Democratic in recent presidential elections, and still appears to lean in that direction: President Barack Obama led Romney by 9 percent in exit polling from Tuesday's recall.

"We hear the same thing every four years," said a longtime Democratic operative in the state. "I think right now, given all the polling that's been done, Obama has a slight advantage here. But I think history suggests they'll be close races, and hard-fought."

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd recaps the Wisconsin recall election.

And if Romney does win in Wisconsin, it might be difficult to parse out a broader implication for Obama. After all, Republicans' efforts to fight off recalls for the better part of the past 15 months has meant they've built a vaunted voter mobilization machine unparalleled in any other state.

"He is competitive," Ryan said of Romney's hopes in the state this fall. "And I think he’s going to win."

"How many times do we need to win before people start to believe that we can win in Wisconsin as conservatives?" asked Priebus.

He gleefully added at Walker's election night party on Tuesday evening: ""The message [to Obama] is we can't wait for you to get into Wisconsin and test the water."