Why you should care
Because the Wisconsin way could predict how the rest of the nation goes.
A number of U.S. Senate races threaten to redraw the 2018 map, from a free-for-all in Arizona to a gutter fight in Nevada. But if you’re looking for the oddest scene in the union, look no further than the land of cheese curds and campy beer. Yes, we’re talking about you, Badger State.
Wisconsin has the widest ideological gap between its two U.S. senators in the nation.
That’s according to the GovTrack.us ideological rankings, which give Republican Sen. Ron Johnson an 84 percent conservative score — and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin just 14 percent. It’s one example of the extreme shifts in the state that voted for Obama twice only to then back Trump. Wisconsin has been topsy-turvy in recent history, with Democrats experiencing wave elections in 2006, 2008 and 2012 and Republicans turning the tables in 2010, 2014 and 2016. Now liberals are saying that America’s Dairyland is poised for a shift once more, away from its now Republican-dominated legislature … but will that forecast hold true for the nation’s most bipolar state?
For an answer, it helps to look again at that Johnson-Baldwin divide. The two could not be more different: Johnson almost always votes in line with Donald Trump, while Baldwin only backs the president’s stance a fifth of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.com. Yet the same state that elected Johnson in 2010 went ahead and backed Baldwin just two years later. Why? In part because it was a slightly different set of voters, motivated by the allure of a presidential year, which makes a huge difference in a place where statewide elections have often come down to a few thousand votes.
Turnout should be lower this year, since it’s midterm season, although the political winds seem to favor a Democratic incumbent like Baldwin to prevail. “The vibe has been that, since the election, Democrats have super-jazzed-up the turnout,” says J.R. Ross, editor of the news service WisPolitics. That’s been especially true in the suburbs. In early January, Democrat Patty Schachtner flipped a Senate District 10 seat held by the GOP since 2000. Her success was buoyed by driving up the vote in the Wisconsin suburbs of St. Paul and Minneapolis, traditional Republican-leaning areas. The result was “an alarm klaxon for Republicans at every level of the ballot,” celebrated Carolyn Fiddler, political editor of the liberal blog Daily Kos, in a release sent after the upset. “Wisconsin Democrats have a steep hill to climb, but the wind is definitely at their backs,” she tells OZY.
Despite Wisconsin’s recent obvious status as a seesaw state, longtime political watchers argue the potential for shifts were always there for the state. “We were not as blue as people think we’d been,” Ross notes. The state holds simultaneous claims for being the birthplace of both progressivism and the Republican party. Yes, there was a liberal streak: Cheeseheads voted for the Democratic presidential candidate every election from Walter Mondale in 1988 to Obama in 2012. But on the statewide level, Republicans such as governors Tommy Thompson and Scott Walker continued to win elections.
The tallies were always close. And when turnout in cities like Madison and Milwaukee lags, urbanites can be swallowed by rural folks — and those latter voters have become more consolidated around the Republican flag in the last decade, says Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Obama’s success in the state, and Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, proved, “Yeah, we could be very blue, but you have to excite and engage the base,” Burden says.
Wisconsin’s parties are also becoming further separated in principle. On the Democratic side, the state went for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary and continues to support Baldwin as a liberal lion in the Senate. Meanwhile, the majority of the Republicans holding power now, including Walker, were ushered in as part of the national Tea Party wave. Both sides retain a purist mentality: “We’ve already had our purification of parties. We don’t have a moderate wing in the base,” Burden says. With polarization on the rise nationally too, maybe the Wisconsin way isn’t crazy — maybe it’s just the new normal, only we haven’t realized it yet.