Around the U.S. in 50 Days: Wisconsin

There will be interest in Wisconsin, some of it brought on by the cry baby union loudmouths- many of them not even from Wisconsin- who seek to recall Governor Scott Walker over his much publicized fight to gain concessions from public worker unions. To recall, upon facing office, like many Governors, he faced serious fiscal problems, most of them tied to structural problems in existing union pension and health care plans. Walker simply went for the jugular. To be fair, similar efforts were initiated in other states like New Jersey. It is simply that unions decided to make a stand in Wisconsin, and they lost. But, there was the nightly spectacle of the state house being taken over by angry, noisy protesters and people marching in the streets of Madison protesting against what they did not know in the first place. Having lost, they began what appears to be a never-ending recall effort against Walker.

The bottom line is that the GOP still controls the redistricting process and a little history is in order here. It has been a century since a Wisconsin House freshman lost in a redistricting cycle. In fact, since 1952, only one Wisconsin incumbent has ever lost a reelection bid in a redistricting cycle year. Two current Republicans fit this criteria- Sean Duffy in the 7th and Reid Ribble in the 8th District. Since 1952, the only incumbent Wisconsin representative to lose was Republican Alvin O’Konski in 1972 (to David Obey), but that was because the state lost a House seat that year and his 10th District was basically obliterated. All of this suggests that when redistricting, making the new districts more competitive is not the goal necessarily, but that simple demographics dictate the process. Wisconsin may very well prove to be the poster boy for how redistricting should occur without the VRA.

Some Democrats believe the norm will be broken this year and they view Duffy as particularly vulnerable. However, a little more history suggests otherwise. That is, nine of 11 freshman House members seeking reelection in a redistricting year won by an even greater margin in their follow up election than in their inaugural winning effort. When looking at it district by district, it would appear this trend will continue in 2012. If not, then the GOP could be in for a very long night.

The three Democratic districts are safe: Gwen Moore in the 4th, Ron Kind in the 3rd, and the vacant 2nd District. Paul Ryan will win in the 1st as his national prominence alone will catapult him to victory in a district that is only nominally considered Republican. Democratic challenger Robert Zerban should go down in a fairly easy win for Ryan. In the 5th and 6th- represented by Jim Sensenbrenner and Tom Petri respectively- there is not even any Democratic opposition yet. The 5th is rated +13 Republican and the 6th is +4 Republican. The 8th- that of Reid Ribble- was pushed slightly into the 6th, but not enough to weaken Petri, nor strengthen Ribble much.

The main thrust of the effort was to bolster Duffy in the 7th. Here, the district was taken from +3 Democratic to dead even on the PVI, the best they could realistically do. There are four items that give Democrats better than average hopes here. First, they view Duffy as vulnerable and have targeted him since 2011. Second, they believe they have a viable candidate in former state senator Patrick Kreitlow. Third, they expect a motivated base to turn out on Election Day with a hotly contested Senate seat and Obama at the top of the ticket. And fourth, the possibility that Governor Walker may face a recall election is another factor to motivate the base. Given the new district boundaries, the history, and Wisconsin tendencies to go Democratic nationally, but not so much locally, I believe Duffy will prevail.

The Democrats believe they have a great candidate in 2nd District Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. Openly gay and unabashedly liberal, she will prove a stark contrast to any Republican rival. Over the last several election cycles, she has never won with less than 60% of the vote in her home district. A member of the House Progressive Caucus, she has staked out positions that may be even too liberal for Wisconsin- positions like the impeachment of Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzalez. Considering Republican gains of late in the state, she will most likely be reliant on Obama’s coat tails, high urban turn out and a motivated youth voting bloc.

For the Republicans, they are throwing no lightweight into the contest in the name of former Governor Tommy Thompson. Governor from 1987-2001, his welfare reform efforts were replicated elsewhere in the country and used as a model for federal reforms under Clinton. Also, his health care reforms managed to insure many residents who made too much to qualify for Medicaid, but enough to purchase on their own and his pilot school choice program in Milwaukee was a moderate success. That is, Thompson actually enacted many of the reforms that conservatives today use as templates for reforms at the federal level in many key areas- welfare, health care, and education.

While initial polls put Thompson ahead, there are two factors that need mentioning here. First, the election is ten months away. Not that big of a state, Baldwin’s low numbers may be attributable to name recognition. This will change as the campaign heats up. However, that could be a double edged sword for her. She is well-known in the more liberal areas around Milwaukee and Madison. It is the conservative northern reaches of the state that will reject her brand of liberalism.

The second factor is Thompson himself. Most voters are familiar with him since he was Governor for 14 years, a former Secretary of HHS, and a former candidate for President (albeit, short-lived). They should familiar with his occasional political gaffes. Baldwin and her campaign will likely highlight past comments about being in favor of workplace discrimination against gays and will portray him as being out of the mainstream with Wisconsin voters. And having a head cold as an excuse for misunderstanding questions will only work so many times. She will also likely highlight the fact that he mixed up the JDL with ADL and some comments that, when taken out of context, could be seen as perpetuating Jewish stereotypes. There was also his alleged mistreatment of Native American tribes in Wisconsin over, of all things, spearfishing. That is, Thompson enters the fray with some baggage.

On the national level, Wisconsin (like Minnesota) is tough to predict. The birthplace of the socialist movement in America, five of their eight Congressmen are Republican along with a Republican governor and possibly both Senators. On one level, I feel like Wisconsin electing two Republican Senators in back-to-back elections may be asking too much. But then again, this is Wisconsin and I feel that Baldwin is just too damn liberal, even for Wisconsin. This will motivate the conservatives and independents to negate the liberal turnout.

In presidential politics, the state voted for Obama in 2008 and there is reason to believe they will break that way again in 2012, although it will be by less than the 14 point margin of victory he enjoyed in 2008. The most recent poll put him ahead of likely GOP nominee, Mitt Romney. His approval rating in the state stands at 45% with a disapproval rating of 51%. Obama will have his most trouble with the independent voters where his approval rating stands at 40%. This spells trouble for Obama, but I believe recent trends should continue and he will eventually win their 10 electoral votes.

To summarize, Obama takes the ten electoral votes, Thompson is elected Senator and the congressional delegation remains 5-3 in favor of the GOP in Wisconsin.

Running totals thus far:
Obama with 129 electoral votes to 165 for GOP nominee;
Net gain of 2 Governors;
Net gain of 4 Senate seats;
Net loss of 9 House seats.