Wisconsin Lurches Between Parties in Political Unrest

Wisconsin Lurches Between Parties in History of Political Unrest
Representative Paul Ryan, Republican vice presidential candidate, is seen on a screen while speaking at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Wisconsin is an equal opportunity elector, a state where almost anything is possible. Politically it doesn’t just swing -- it lurches as it goes to war with itself.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s selection of U.S. Representative Paul Ryan to be his running mate has thrust this state of 5.7 million people and 10 electoral votes back into battle, after more than three years of partisan volatility.

Voters delivered a 14 percentage-point victory to Democrat Barack Obama four years ago. They reversed course in 2010, electing a Republican governor and booting out three-term Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. Then they turned on their first-term chief executive, Scott Walker, forcing only the third recall election of a governor in U.S. history.

Now comes Ryan, the conservative budget-cutter from Janesville.

“I think Ryan’s selection certainly makes the state more of a battleground than it might have been,” said Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette Law School Poll.

This has become a familiar position for Wisconsin. Despite its storied heritage of progressivism, voters have embraced, among others, the presidential candidacies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Romney’s Aug. 11 selection of Ryan has fueled Republican hopes that this state may reject a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1984, when Reagan won.

Medicare Plan

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan, 42, is a champion of small government and spending cuts paired with tax cuts, especially for the wealthy. His best-known proposal would replace Medicare, the health-insurance program for the elderly and disabled, with a plan offering a fixed amount of money for buying private medical insurance.

While political history has shown a vice presidential selection can help a ticket’s chances, Franklin said, the popularity of the Ryan choice among conservatives shouldn’t be overstated.

The state’s undecided voters are “not wed to partisanship and ideology,” Franklin said. “These are more moderate folks who ask, ‘Well, how are things going?’”

Political Discontent

That’s where reading Wisconsin’s politics of discontent gets tricky. While unemployment in the state was 7.3 percent in July, well below the national average of 8.3 percent, Wisconsin suffered a net loss of 2,100 nonfarm jobs during the first two quarters of 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Often known as America’s Dairyland, a motto inscribed on vehicle license plates since 1940, it is now the second-largest milk producer, behind California. The dominant industries are manufacturing and services.

Wisconsin is racially and ethnically less diverse than the national average, 83 percent white, compared with 63 percent for the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.

Although Walker won the June 5 recall election, exit polls showed that one in five of his supporters said they would vote for Obama in November.

“There’s a potential for a large variation of outcomes,” said Kenneth Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “What matters as much as the absolute level of unemployment is the relative level -- how people feel about economic uncertainty, the deficit, the middle class.”

Fighting Form

Wisconsin, though, is clearly in fighting form. The state hosted an unprecedented 15 ouster elections this year and last in the fight over Walker’s restrictions on public employee collective bargaining.

Republican- and Democratic-leaning political action committees and super-PACs poured $137.5 million into the state for the recall fight, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The wild card in Wisconsin is its historic tendency to swing. As Mayer said, “We produced both Robert La Follette and Joseph McCarthy,” referring to the Progressive Party presidential candidate of 1924 and the two-term U.S. senator who built a career alleging communist subversion in government in the 1950s.

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