On the ever-popular AMC series The Walking Dead the flesh-eating zombies are generally called “walkers” by the show’s characters. In Wisconsin, however, a Walker is—or ought to be—only slightly less terrifying to state and national Democrats. That’s because Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, the man who built a well-deserved national reputation as the politician who eviscerated organized labor in his state, is running for re-election in 2014—and, if we wins, could emerge as the GOP’s favored candidate to replace the beleaguered Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor. Indeed, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Walker ought to be considered the front-runner, ahead of Rand Paul and Christie.

A new poll in Wisconsin, by the Republican-leaning Rasmussen firm, says that the race between Walker and Mary Burke, the Democratic candidate, is now tied at 45 percent each. Reports The Capital Times in Madison:

The poll will no doubt be used by both sides to inspire their forces. For Democrats, it is evidence that Burke has a shot in November and makes the case that her campaign is worth the investment of time from volunteers and money from donors. For Republicans, results could serve as a wake-up call. Walker's rabid supporters and Rolodex of big donors can't take the election for granted and must work hard to protect the conservative policies he has pushed through in the past three years.

Walker, of course, hasn’t said he’s running for president, and he didn’t make an appearance this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Christie, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and several other would-be 2016 standard-bearers auditioned. However, Walker will put in an appearance in Las Vegas later this month at the annual Republican Jewish Coalition bash, alongside Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush. One of the RJC’s biggest backers is Sheldon Adelson, a deep-pocketed, far-right donor who could singlehandedly finance a candidate in the GOP primary, as he did with Newt Gingrich’s failed effort in 2012.

In polls, and among Republican pundits—such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax evangelist—Walker often gets favorable mention. However, like Christie, Walker has had to deal with a burgeoning scandal at home. And like Christie, who twice won big as a conservative Republican running in a deep-blue state, one of Walker’s main claims to fame is that he accomplished his union-busting, small-government agenda in a state that is traditionally Democratic. But Walker may be facing an uphill climb in 2014: though he survived an expensive fight-to-the-death over a recall vote in June 2012 following his assault on collective bargaining, that victory ought not be seen as a sign of Walker’s strength. That’s because many voters who cast ballots for Walker in the 2012 vote did so not because they supported Walker but, according to polling, because they didn’t support the idea of a recall in principle, and in fact many of those who ended up backing Walker in the recall voted for President Obama later that year. As Walker himself wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

And here is where the results get intriguing: Exit polls showed that roughly one in six voters who cast their ballots for me in the June 2012 recall also planned to vote for Mr. Obama a few months later. These Obama-Walker voters constituted about 9 percent of the electorate.

So, in a straight-up contest in 2014, Walker is likely to face a more clear-cut test of his popularity. And for national Democrats, knocking Walker off his gubernatorial perch could help eliminate a very credible candidate for the GOP in 2016, one who is popular with the Republican establishment but who also has strong support among the Tea Party wing. Unlike Christie, who signed up New Jersey for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, Walker loudly rejected it, to the applause of Tea Partiers.

National Journal, which says that Walker is “being hyped as a leading Republican presidential contender,” draws a historical parallel with another GOP hopeful eight years ago:

A Walker defeat wouldn't be the first time a presidential contender lost an election right before their big opportunity. Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia spent 2005 and part of 2006 getting eyed as presidential material—before his "macaca" moment and a Democratic wave turfed him out of elected office.

If Christie is knocked out, if Walker loses his re-election bid and if Jeb Bush decides not to run, the chances increase that the Republicans in 2016 will opt for one of the far-right, freshman senators who’ve signaled that they’re running—Paul, Rubio or Cruz. If so, they’ll be repeating on a national scale what they did in US Senate races in Nevada, Connecticut and elsewhere, namely, running an ideological zealot who can’t appeal to independent, centrist and moderate voters, exactly Hillary Clinton’s base.