This special election provides a major test of the emerging congressional Democratic message for 2012: Republicans have become beholden to the tea party and want to decimate the social safety net through cuts to entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. In Kelly, the party has a perfect foil. In 2010, the former Marine ran a race that relied on conservative straight talk at the expense of his political standing. Giffords was one of the few vulnerable House Democrats who won reelection, because voters viewed Kelly as too far to the right.

Kelly has undergone something of a makeover for his second bid. But Democrats aren’t letting voters forget about his past statements, airing a barrage of negative campaign ads accusing him of wanting to eliminate Social Security and Medicare. One of the latest spots, commissioned by the House Majority super PAC, revisits his heated rhetoric against Giffords during last election cycle…

Special elections don’t always predict the outcome of future elections, but they can offer telling clues about the future political environment. That adage is doubly significant this month. After Walker’s win Tuesday night, a Kelly victory would be a sign that 2012 could very well be another wave election for the Republicans.