The Magazine

The Battle for Wisconsin

From the September 6, 2004 issue: A Brahmin among the Cheeseheads.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Assuming Brett Favre doesn't endorse anyone, Wisconsin will likely see an unprecedented level of political activity in the next two months. "After Labor Day, you won't see a new car ad for six weeks," says Keith Schmitz, a grassroots activist and Kerry supporter from the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood. Wisconsinites have already been inundated with ads, phone calls, and candidate visits. Bush has been to the state 13 times as president. Of his 7 campaign bus trips, 3 have taken him to Wisconsin. John Edwards toured the state early last week. Kerry's ill-fated trip to Green Bay came just two days after Edwards left the state. The Democratic National Committee launched its first television ad of the 2004 campaign in Madison . . . in July 2003.

Outside groups have also been as active in Wisconsin as they have in any state. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth chose the state in their targeted rollout of ads attacking John Kerry. The Progress for America Voter Fund, another "527" group, released the first of its anti-Kerry ads last Wednesday in just two states--Iowa and Wisconsin. Anti-Bush groups such as MoveOn.org and the Media Fund have spent considerable sums trashing the president in the state.

This saturation will not be limited to ads, or "paid media," but will also include the free media generated by news coverage. Democratic strategists say the Kerry campaign plans to have events featuring the candidates or prominent surrogates almost daily in Wisconsin from Labor Day through the November 2 election.

The reason for all of this attention is simple. Wisconsin, according to Hotline editor-in-chief Chuck Todd, is "the swingiest of all the swing states."

Al Gore won Wisconsin by 5,708 votes in 2000--47.8 percent to 47.6 percent. (Ralph Nader won 94,070 votes--4 percent.) Republicans think the margin was closer. "There were dozens of reports of malfeasance in Milwaukee County," says Rep. Paul Ryan, co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Wisconsin. "Lots of people think it was stolen from Bush in 2000."

For months polls have shown the race to be dead even, with most of the results within the margin of error. A poll published Friday by the Los Angeles Times shows that little has changed. Bush leads Kerry 45 percent to 44 percent, with Ralph Nader at 3 percent. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.

This down-the-middle split manifests itself in the state's political leadership: While both of Wisconsin's senators are Democrats, the House delegation is split evenly, 4-4. Governor Jim Doyle is a Democrat, but Republicans control both branches of the state legislature.

IN A TYPICAL ELECTION YEAR a Democratic presidential campaign would likely dismiss or altogether ignore an interview request from a weekly agricultural newspaper with a readership of just 25,000. This is not, of course, a typical election year. And the publication in question happens to be located in western Wisconsin--one of the few rural areas where Al Gore ran well in 2000. The Kerry campaign is hoping to build on that success.

So not only did John Kerry give an interview to Scott Schultz, managing editor of The Country Today, but Kerry's campaign solicited the coverage. "The Kerry campaign was the one who contacted me," says Schultz, in an email. "They said they were interested in getting their message out to the rural population and asked whether I'd be interested in having 15 minutes or so one-on-one via telephone while the senator was traveling."

Kerry spoke with Schultz on June 23, 2004. One week later, in its issue dated June 30, 2004, The Country Today broke news that would be especially significant to its readership. "Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said that if he's elected, he'd no longer support special regional dairy pricing programs that some Wisconsin and Minnesota farm leaders have opposed. Sen. Kerry had supported the Northeast Dairy Compact, which Upper Midwest dairy leaders said unfairly benefited Northeast dairy producers."

Two days later, on July 2, Kerry addressed a large rally at a dairy farm in Independence, Wisconsin. "I plead guilty. I did vote for the compact as a representative of farmers in Massachusetts," he explained. "I'm going to stand up for farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa just as hard as I did for the farmers in Massachusetts." The crowd roared its approval.

It was an admirable and refreshing moment of candor. But it was still a flip-flop. And whatever good the careful planning and straight talk might have done was quickly undone by the candidate's awkward attempt to transform himself from John Forbes Kerry to Farmer John.