Politics & Government

Wisconsin: Politics impossible to predict ahead of Tuesday’s primary

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker endorsed Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. But whether that will help in Tuesday’s voting remains to be seen; 59 percent of Wisconsin voters told pollsters last fall that they disapproved of Walker’s actions in office.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker endorsed Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. But whether that will help in Tuesday’s voting remains to be seen; 59 percent of Wisconsin voters told pollsters last fall that they disapproved of Walker’s actions in office. AP

Wisconsin’s politics seem to make little sense.

Three times its people sent Russ Feingold, hero of the left and author of a landmark law to curb big money in campaigns, to the Senate. In 2012, they elected Tammy Baldwin as the first openly gay person to the Senate. They have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988.

Yet they’ve also embraced Scott Walker, the combative conservative Republican, voting three times for him as governor since 2010.

They’ve also sent Ron Johnson, a Republican, to the U.S. Senate as part of the tea party wave of 2010 that ousted Feingold. Johnson’s lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 98. For comparison, Baldwin’s is 1.82.

“It really is different here,” said Mike Tate, former chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

Fierce independence is as much a Wisconsin staple as beer cheese soup and Usinger’s sausage.

The crazy swings explain why Wisconsin is going to get a lot of attention in 2016, particularly on Tuesday, when the state holds the nation’s first primary in more than two weeks and the last one for another two weeks. That means whoever does well could get important momentum heading into New York, Pennsylvania and other states that vote later in April.

Democrat Bernie Sanders hopes the state’s sizable liberal community helps him topple front-runner Hillary Clinton. Among Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has won Walker’s endorsement and is in a virtual tie in polls with GOP national front-runner Donald Trump. And Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who Tuesday won the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsement, is in the running.

Wisconsin tends to be much more politically engaged than the average state.

Aaron Weinschenk, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Once again, the state is tough to figure.

Democrat Al Gore won the state by two-tenths of a percentage point in 2000. Four years later, Democrat John Kerry won by four-tenths of 1 percent. Obama won with 52.8 percent in 2012.

Fierce independence is as much a Wisconsin staple as beer cheese soup and Usinger’s sausage.

Ripon, Wisconsin, was the birthplace of the Republican Party. The Ripon Society remains a centrist party stalwart. Led by generations of the LaFollette family in the first half of the 20th century, Wisconsin Republicans (and for a time Progressives) championed government as a force for public good. Public education, effective transportation, protection for workers and other reforms were popular.

Wisconsin voters came to see that “R doesn’t just stand for Republican, but it stands for reform,” Walker said.

At the same time, another tradition was growing, one labeled the “individualist approach” by Aaron Weinschenk and Neil Kraus in the book “Presidential Swing States.” This approach is largely the Republican Party’s mantra today, that government should not impede individual initiative, that the best corporations will survive, spend and hire, and ultimately help create a better society.

Voters are divided between the two approaches, and debates can be fierce and frequent. “Wisconsin tends to be much more politically engaged than the average state,” said Weinschenk, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

That level of engagement got rough in 2011, when Walker challenged public sector unions, setting up an ugly, lengthy confrontation. He effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employees, then a year later became the first governor to ever survive a recall effort. He had hoped to use that momentum to win the Republican presidential nomination, but his bid faded last year, and he withdrew from the race.

59Percentage of Wisconsin voters who disapproved of the job Gov. Scott Walker was doing, according to a Sept. 24-28 Marquette Law School poll

His popularity sank in his state last year, particularly after proposing deep cuts in state aid to public education. The Republican-dominated state legislature was reluctant to agree, and finally passed a budget that included some education cuts.

Walker simply could not muscle lawmakers to go along. His inability to tap a political network is another staple of Wisconsin politics. Unlike many industrial states with big, dominant cities, Wisconsin never developed the kind of political machine that ruled Chicago, New York, Boston or Baltimore.

That means “there’s still this sort of populist tradition that candidates have to communicate directly with voters,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll.

Voters agree. It’s easy to find people throughout the state who want conversations about how things are going, who want to talk about more than a single topic or candidate.

“I look at the interaction of personal character with a few political issues,” said Larry Pesch, an executive at La Casa de Esperanza, a Waukesha community organization.

Kristy Casey, a Waukesha school principal who calls her politics “right down the middle,” is looking for candidates who not only talk but follow up.

I always feel candidates seem genuine about education issues. Then they get in office and it goes away.

Kristy Casey, high school principal in Waukesha, Wis.

Sheila Killebrew, a Milwaukee home-based educator, felt the same way about health care. “I don’t get it. I’m healthy,” she said. “I thought the new law would lower the cost of care but it’s not.”

They want not just answers but explanations. They don’t want clever ads or bumper stickers. They want dialogue. It’s not hard to find.

The issues here are, in broad terms, the same as in most states. Unemployment peaked at 9.2 percent five years ago but was down to 4.2 percent in November. State services have been slashed thanks to big budget deficits, blamed on a combination of Walker tax cuts and slower than predicted revenue growth.

Guadalupe King lives on a street in Whitefish Bay where, she jokes, half the people are Democrats and half are Republicans. What ultimately makes a difference, she said, is who turns out to vote, and that depends on who’s running.

What’s important, said Walker, is not to look too extreme. “The myth is that Republicans hate government,” he said, but that message won’t sell. What will is that government “should be narrowly focused, and we should expect that it works.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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