By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
First, you choose (re-choose), three darlings of the conservative movement — Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (now vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan), and Reince Priebus, former head of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, now chair of the Republican National Committee.
But then …
You select former Gov. Tommy Thompson over his more-conservative counterparts to face U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-2nd District, in November in the race to replace U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl.
And still …
You like President Obama more than you dislike him (53 percent to 42 percent) and, if the November presidential election was held now, you’d choose Obama over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney (50 to 43 percent), according to the latest Marquette Law School poll.
The Marquette poll results are based on a survey of 519 likely voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. The poll was conducted Aug. 2-5.
“I think first of all, it’s a mistake to assume rationality,” University of Wisconsin-Madison political expert Dennis Dresang said, with a little laugh. “And Wisconsin, in particular, has been known for splitting itself all over the place.”
Indecisiveness, however, can cut a messy political path, one that puts Wisconsin in the permanent “Purple State” category.
- During the time in which Thompson served as Wisconsin governor, when he was popularly elected to an unprecedented four terms, Wisconsinites also chose, as U.S. senators, Democrats Kohl and Russ Feingold.
- Feingold, viewed as one of the Senate’s most progressive members, won a third term in 2004 by 12 percent – then lost to newcomer conservative Ron Johnson six years later by 5 percent.
- In 2008, Wisconsinites voted in a Democratic Legislature and chose Obama over Republican John McCain by 14 percent. Two years later, Wisconsin Republicans swept to power, winning the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature.
“We’re on a pretty good role, aren’t we?” Republican strategist Mark Graul said.
Still, he added, “You can never rest on your laurels.”
There’s no doubt that life is looking pretty good for the Wisconsin GOP right now.
As the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza recently put it, “The Badger State now can lay claim to the Republican vice presidential nominee, the chairman of the Republican National Committee and the most famous governor in the country. Not bad for a state that the Republican presidential nominee hasn’t carried since 1984. If the 1990s and earlier 2000s saw a Republican Party controlled by men from Texas — George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey— then this decade’s Texas certainly looks like Wisconsin.”
What may be worse for the state’s Democratic Party: Unlike the GOP’s Ryan, Walker and Priebus, there are few obvious up-and-coming Democrats here that are setting the electorate’s hearts afire.
“If you’re looking ahead to 2014 and a gubernatorial race, for example, I think it’s far from obvious who the (Democratic) gubernatorial candidate is,” said Dresang, director of the Center on State, Local, and Tribal Governance at the UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs.
But if the political landscape favors the Wisconsin GOP, Wisconsin’s own history could be a thing of hope for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Even Graul said, “Anybody that studies the history of politics would tell you you’d be silly to think that (the GOP strength is) going to last forever. … It’s a cyclical thing. It’ll be cyclical. Republicans are not going to be riding high for the next 100 years.”
Allin Walker is one of the people charged with ensuring that the GOP stronghold in the state is as short-lived as possible.
“If you ask people a series of questions, about for example, traditional Democratic Party issues, they say, ‘yes, yes, yes, yes,’” said Walker, chair of the Door County Democratic Party. “And they get to the end (of the survey) and are asked, ‘Are you going to vote Democratic?’ And they say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Walker said he believes that the Democratic Party hasn’t been able to translate those “yeses” into votes because the party has focused too much on facts alone.
He points, as a positive example, to U.S. senatorial candidate Baldwin’s stories about her grandparents, who raised her, to illustrate the stakes involved in the Medicare and Social Security debate.
“We’ve been very fact-based,” Walker said. “We’ve been very rational-based, and we’re moving in to the kind of gut level for the next two months.”
“We’re asking our canvassers to start with their story — not 20-minute stories, but at least an issue that they’re passionate enough about to knock on that person’s door or make that phone call,” he said. “‘Start with your own story — and then listen.’”
Dresang said he has “no idea” which would-be candidates are waiting to take up the Democratic mantle.
But he noted that Kohl wasn’t known for much beyond keeping the Milwaukee Bucks in Wisconsin before his successful ran for Senate — albeit with a lot of money of his own to fund a campaign.
And Feingold, too, was a virtual unknown when he won for the first time in 1992, winning the Democratic primary in that election because voters rejected the mud-slinging political tactics of Feingold’s opponents, Dresang said.
“If you’re a Democrat (now) you’ve gotta be concerned,” he said. “On the other hand, that’s not something new, and we don’t have strong parties in this state. … It’s very, very candidate driven more than anything else.”