Tight race in schizophrenic Wisconsin
OSHKOSH, Wis. - For the third time this year, Wisconsin finds itself smack in the center of the political conversation.
Mitt Romney will rally supporters Monday in suburban Milwaukee, President Obama is visiting Green Bay Tuesday and Paul Ryan follows the president to the home of Lambeau Field and makes two other Wisconsin stops on Wednesday. And both the campaigns and their SuperPACs, after only coming on the air in September, are ratcheting up their TV spending here, making Green Bay now the most heavily-bought market in America.
Suddenly, the Badger State is looking more like it did in 2000 and 2004, when presidential hopefuls lavished attention on the cheese-and-beer-loving people between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River and the campaigns were decided by less than a percentage point. Independent observers here still give Obama the edge at the moment - but barely.
What gives Republicans a measure of both hope and concern are the two preceding events this year that thrust Wisconsin into the national spotlight: the contentious and unsuccessful June recall of Gov. Scott Walker and Romney's selection in August of Janesville's Ryan as his running mate.
The GOP case for why they can win Wisconsin for the first time since 1984 rests in no small part on each. They think the effort to dislodge Walker from office a year-and-a-half into his term has sparked a backlash and created an organization that will carry over into the presidential race. And they believe that the presence of the popular 42-year-old Wisconsinite on the Republican ticket will lift Romney in some of the state's Democratic-leaning precincts.
But what makes Republicans uneasy about their prospects next month can also be traced back to the recall and Ryan pick.
About 500,000 voters who cast ballots in the 2008 election didn't show up for the recall, which Walker won by seven points. Political veterans in both parties here believe those Wisconsinites are likely Obama voters, if he can turn them out again.
"If you're not involved or engaged enough to come out for the Walker recall ... ," said freshman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a bit incredulously, adding: "I'm a little concerned about the half-million voters. That is the only reason this thing would be close."
The incoming GOP Speaker of the state Assembly, Robin Vos, was blunter.
"That is my biggest concern," Vos said of the fall-off between the presidential campaign and recall. "It's the most important election in our life and you didn't vote?"
Further, while the selection of Ryan lifted Republican hopes here for the first time and threw a scare into Democrats, what came after has left GOP veterans befuddled: Romney didn't come back to the state once following a joint rally he held the day after he put the young House Budget Committee chairman on the ticket in mid-August. Only Ryan has been on the trail here over the last two months.
In an interview, Walker said he had been "pestering" senior Republicans, including RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who's from Kenosha, and Romney officials to get the GOP nominee back to the state.
"They've clearly heard our requests," said Walker, pointing to Romney's trip on Monday. "Our voters want to see the candidate and it's not enough to see the candidate on TV."
Walker emphasized that he thinks Romney can win and called the race "a dead heat."
Most Democrats, however, believe firmly Obama is still narrowly ahead and both private polling conducted by Republicans and Democrats as well as independent observers give the incumbent the edge going into the final week.
"It's close with a slight Obama advantage," said Craig Gilbert the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's political sage.
Gilbert makes the case, and privately Republicans agree, that Romney's campaign sent "mixed signals about what their priority was" by not returning to the state until the end of October.
"It's been an interesting contrast to 2004 where the Bush campaign was unambiguously all-out for Wisconsin," said Gilbert, who recalled the former president taking a bus tour through the western part of the state.
Democrats, who concede they saw a real shift in polling after Ryan was put on the ticket, are gleeful that Romney stayed away for so long.
"I can't remember the last time Mitt Romney even looked toward Wisconsin," said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.), the veteran lawmaker from the western swath of the state. "It's really strange. They must be seeing the same polling we're seeing."
Kind said he's more confident this year than he was in the last close race here eight years ago for two principal reasons.
"President Obama has a superior ground game," said the congressman and Romney does not have the identity with voters that Bush had. "They don't know who [Romney] is."
However, what's similar between this year and 2004, when John Kerry beat Bush by less than 12,000 votes, is how tight this race may end up being. In some ways, such a split is the natural state of being in Wisconsin.
This has long been a place of a divided political mind. Wisconsin sent both red-baiter Joseph McCarthy and liberal Earth Day father Gaylord Nelson to the Senate and more recently repeatedly elected former Sen. Russ Feingold, a progressive stalwart, while also making conservative Tommy Thompson one of the longest serving governors in the nation. And the split continues today, not just in the presidential race but also in the closely-contested Senate race between Thompson and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Madison liberal and open lesbian.
"Political schizophrenia," is how Paul Maslin, the Madison-based Democratic pollster, describes his state.
Obama won by 14 percentage points in 2008, flipping 32 of Wisconsin's 72 counties from red to blue. As noted by Madison's Capital Times in a lengthy piece this week about the state's independent streak, there was more county turnover in the presidential race from 2004 to 2008 than any other state in the nation.
That was before 2010, when Walker won six points, Johnson by five and Republicans picked up two House seats and both chambers of the legislature. Then came the $80 million recall, with Democratic state senators fleeing the state to block Walker's public worker legislation, tens of thousands of protestors descending on Wisconsin's elegant granite and marble Capitol and politics pitting family members against one another.
The cameras have long since departed, but a visit to the Capitol turns up a couple of hearty protestors. Security guards there say a few dozen still show up each weekday to sing protest songs.
Republicans hope that the spirit of the recall continues and Walker pointed to a pair of benefits the GOP won from the vote.
The first one is the reason why the White House was never thrilled about the idea of the recall in the first place: it built up a turn-key organization for Romney.
The 25 victory centers Walker set up and the fruits of the 4.4 million voter contacts his team made were turned over to the Romney team.
"We ignited all these grassroots volunteers," said the governor.
Dick Hein and his wife were two of them.
Hein had long voted for Republicans - LBJ was the last Democratic president he recalled supporting - but hadn't been involved in politics until the recall.
Chatting last week after a get-out-the-vote rally in GOP-heavy Waukesha County with Johnson and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Hein explained that the June vote inspired him to spend 16 hours as poll-watching volunteer.
"We're sick of being bullied by these people," he said of public workers. "They're not being realistic."
In a softer voice, he explained that one of his children, a teacher, now won't talk to him as a result of the recall.
Such stories abound in Wisconsin.
But Walker, by way of explaining the other way Romney could be helped by the recall, said his audacious agenda proved that bigness is rewarded, even in the state where AFSCME was founded.
"People are willing, even if they haven't historically voted Republican, to give someone a chance if they're willing to take on big issues," said the governor, adding that Romney still has "to seal the deal."
"It can't just be that Scott Walker supports you and you supported Scott Walker. That's not enough. It does open the door, but he has to come in and make the case he can do it."
Wisconsin Democrats dismiss the notion that the recall will help Romney as hogwash. They say the campaigns are discrete events and swing voters aren't conflating them.
"The polling showed people who said, 'I'm for Walker and I'm for Obama,' " recalled Maslin. "We didn't want to believe that prior to June, but guess what: it was true."
Exit polls from the recall showed an 18 percent bloc of voters who backed Walker but also would support Obama.
"Some people felt very firmly that he didn't break the law so he shouldn't be recalled," said Jon Erpenbach, an influential Democratic state senator who clashed with Walker over the public workers legislation.
And, Kind noted, the recall was held after the semester was over in the student-heavy state
"Class is now, the kids are on campus now," he said.
Obama had an estimated 30,000 show up on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison for a rally earlier this month, but there's evidence that there's as much motivation for Romney as Obama in this state.
It was nearly impossible to find an Obama lawn sign in Oshkosh last week, the largest city in a county the president won by 12 percent four years ago. And a Friday rally Vice President Joe Biden held in a gym at UW-Oshkosh was sparsely attended.
It's that region, known as the Fox Valley and including Green Bay, Oshkosh, Appleton and Fond du Lac, that most political observers in the state assume will prove crucial. Bush won there in 2004, but Obama racked up remarkably large wins in the area four years ago.
Obama can afford to lose the region narrowly and still win the state - see the Kerry example - so Republicans are counting on a strong performance here from Romney.
"He's got to run up the score in Green Bay," said Walker, recalling that he was there so much during his recall campaign that he'd joke with the mayor about needing to pay property taxes.
"I've seen Romney up slightly in the [Fox] Valley, but he needs to drive up that number," added Vos.
The reason the heavily-Catholic region is so important is that the population centers in the rest of the state are so polarized. Obama will pull north of 65 percent out of Milwaukee County and Madison's Dane County and Romney will likely do the same in the three "W.O.W" counties that ring the city of Milwaukee: Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington.
The other regions to watch include the suburbs and farms south of Milwaukee, along the Illinois border - Ryan's district and where he'll help the most.
"In 1/8th of our state, a swing district that Obama won, Paul carried in the same election with 64 percent," noted Johnson.
Democrats counter that while Ryan may give the GOP a lift in the south, there's simply too much Democratic terrain for the Republican ticket to overcome the further north and west one goes in the state.
There's a sprawling state beyond the Green Bay-Madison-Milwaukee triangle and it's home to some of the last rural white Democrats in the country. Even as they were losing much of the countryside, both Kerry in 2004 and Obama four years ago still won the farms in Wisconsin's Mississippi River Valley and much of the wooded north country, home to paper mills, weekend cabins and the sort of pro-gun populist Democrats who sent former House Appropriations Chair Dave Obey to Congress for 40 years.
But Republicans took Obey's seat when he retired in 2010 and Walker performed well there and in Kind's district both in 2010 and in the recall - a sign to some in the GOP that the old Democratic bulwarks are giving way.
One veteran Republican, speaking before Romney's Monday trip was announced, accurately predicted that the nominee would fly into the state for a suburban Milwaukee rally - but then said that what he really ought to do is hit Green Bay and then jet west to Wausau and Eau Claire.
For Democrats, northern and western Wisconsin represents a safety valve.
"You got to do well here to carry the state and he is doing well," said Kind of the president, who just made a significant TV buy in Minneapolis to bolster his standing across the Mississippi River. "The farm economy has been very strong."
Quipped Maslin: "The only possible way to change a 14-point margin [from 2008] is if they got a 20-point movement out there and to quote Dana Carvey doing George Bush, 'It's not gonna happen.' "