How Wisconsin Became the Ultimate Battleground State

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 15 2012 6:17 PM

Wisconsin at War

Scott Walker’s Republicans are trying to crush liberal dreams just one more time.

Obama for America volunteers work at the Racine, Wis. headquarters.
Obama for America volunteers work at the Racine, Wis. headquarters. The banner on the wall evokes a slogan from the unsuccessful fight against Scott Walker.

Photo by David Weigel.

WAUKESHA, Wis.—Candee Ardnt hands me the oversize button, the one she made herself. An image of Mount Rushmore on a clear day has been altered, with the faces of the presidents replaced by Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. The text reads Wisconsin GOP: 2012 Rock Stars. She made them for the Republican National Convention, but she unloaded more at yesterday’s fundraiser at the Harley Davidson Museum—minimum ticket price $250—with all four of the heroes, raising money for Thompson’s current U.S. Senate race.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

“It was a wonderful event,” she says, inside the college gym where Ryan’s holding his first Wisconsin event in weeks. “They talked about how Tommy had mentored all of them and helped them into politics. I think he’s going to win. And I think we’re going to break the streak this year. I think Romney’s going to win Wisconsin.”

Every day since the first presidential debate has felt, for Republicans, like Indian summer. But the thermometer’s really been pulsing in Wisconsin. Crushing Democratic dreams have become a semipro sport here, ever since 2010, when the party lost nearly everything on the ballot. Republicans faced down protests over their collective bargaining reforms, and won. Democrats got enough signatures to force a summer 2012 recall election against Gov. Walker. They lost. They even lost a state Supreme Court seat and a state Senate seat when delayed ballots from Waukesha County came in and broke their hearts. And it was in this city, on Oct. 9, 2008, that the McCain/Palin ticket made its final visit to Wisconsin.

“Think about everything we’ve been through!” says Brad Courtney, the state Republican Party chairman, warming up the crowd for Ryan. “On June 4, the polls had the race between Gov. Walker and Tom Barrett dead even. But it was the Republican ground game, the sleeping giant that kept people going.”

At this point the enthusiasm level rises from “happy” to “unreasonably giddy.” From the day the recall was set until voters cast their ballots, Walker consistently led in the polls. It seemed like every union in the country was beating down doors in Wisconsin, and that was almost true, but Walker was able to outspend the Democrats 2-1. On Election Day, the same voters who gave the governor a 54-46 win told exit pollsters that they’d probably vote for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, 51-44.

If Mitt Romney struggles to win Ohio, this state shimmers in the desert as the next-best chance at a GOP pick-up. Democrats know this, and they’re trying not to blow it again. They’re convinced that the Walker wins are unrepeatable, for a bunch of reasons, and that they’ve finally—after half a dozen state elections—figured out why they lost. They enter the final three weeks with a narrow poll lead, the same or better as the numbers right after Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan joined the GOP ticket.

I arrived in the state on Friday and drove to La Crosse, a college town with nearly 52,000 people, one of the liberal population centers in rural western Wisconsin. Vice President Biden made his first post-debate appearance in the school’s Valhalla room, in front of a crowd that was half diehards and half students. The motorcade closed off most routes of escape, so when the speech ended, I joined a group of retired teachers from Tomah, Wis., at a nearby sports bar.* They’d had sweet places in the front of the room, where Biden worked the rope line. They all got kisses on the cheek. It took some doing to find out what made them worry about the election.

“I’ve got a mother who lives on Medicare and I’m worried about cuts,” says Lavonne Spiers.

“I’m worried about David Koch getting added to the Pledge of Allegiance,” jokes Karen Riggs.

The teachers volunteered when they could in the run-up to recalls. Then they retired. According to some estimates, the American Federation of Teachers lost 35 percent of its membership after Walker took over. Some of them dropped out of politics, but some of them used their new time to canvass. “We were weekend warriors,” says Joanne Klinker, working through a basket of bar popcorn, “and now we’re committed.”

On Saturday I drove to Racine, a city in Paul Ryan’s district with a poverty rate roughly twice the statewide average. Bush won the surrounding county twice; Obama won it on an 8-point swing. The Republican “victory center” is nestled in an anonymous office park, next to some legal offices, and not terribly busy. On the drive from the outskirts into the city, I see a white Dodge van deposit, then collect, a group of black teenagers canvassing for Obama votes. The 2008 Obama landslide was built on white votes and a surge of black votes, and Democrats think that the second factor didn’t click in 2010 and the recalls.

The Obama/Democratic victory office is, by far, the most bustling space in a downtown full of empty storefronts and early-closing restaurants. Eighty-four volunteers from the Chicago suburbs have come to train and canvass. Their trainers include a bunch of retired teachers and veterans of the anti-Walker protests. These are people who’ve lost and lost and think they now know how to win. New volunteers learn how to talk to voters, and what to do if they meet people who clearly need convincing. It’s summed up in jargon on the wall, which counts almost everybody in the city as a potential Obama vote.

If motivation and definitely Obama supporter, have sign pledge card.
If lean Obama, undecided, or lean Romney, then persuasion w/ values.

Kelly Gallaher, 49, shows me around the office as she describes the days she spent protesting the Walker budget bill. “I spent 10 to 12 days in the Capitol,” she says. Linda Boyle, a retired teacher and yoga instructor, says she protested in Madison for 14 days.

“You learn to get dressed like a fireman,” says Gallaher, She lifts up her arms as if shaking off her outfit. “You take it off in one go, you sleep, you wake up, you put it back on.”

“I had a pair of yoga pants ready for every day I collected recall signatures,” says Boyle. “You get superstitious. ‘This was the outfit I wore when I got 100 signatures! I’m going to keep wearing it.’ ”

The hardcore Democrats here lost all of the Walker-era elections that the media focused on. But they point out that they won the special Senate race in LaCrosse, and they won the one in Racine. The other side learned new skills, but so did they. Boyle says she was “humbled” by the signature-gathering marathons. The June 4 exit poll found that 60 percent of voters only favored recalls if they were being held to punish major crimes. That, say Democrats, was a thumb on the scale for Walker, unlike anything Republicans have this time.

But the Republicans beat them. The crowd in Waukesha on Monday is only marginally smaller than the one that greeted Biden in La Crosse, and school’s out for the day—there’s no throng of curious college students to goose it. Neither party thinks this election will look like 2008, when Obama won 59 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. It looks like 2000 or 2004, elections so close that Republicans have memorized the margin of George W. Bush’s defeat. Mark Graul, a Republican consultant who ran Bush’s second Wisconsin campaign, concedes that Romney isn’t beloved by Republicans, not the way that the Methodist former president was. But the base is genuinely terrified of Obama. And beating $21 million worth of union money in those recalls tuned them up, too.

“I worked on so many campaigns where we’d be two or three points ahead going into Election Day, then lose,” says Graul, who managed the Bush campaign here in 2004. “That’s just no longer the case. We’ve caught up.”

Correction, Oct. 16, 2012: This article originally misspelled the name of the town of Tomah. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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