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The Cost of Ignoring Wisconsin

12:00 AM, Aug 20, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Ephraim, Wisc.
At an appearance last week at a high school in Cascade, Iowa, a half hour drive from the Wisconsin border, Barack Obama told the crowd gathered to see him that he’d take questions from anyone who had one. There was one exception – a gentleman wearing a Green Bay Packers t-shirt.

obama, afghanistan

“I generally don’t interact with Packer fans,” Obama joked, “except when I’m in Wisconsin.” 

Pretty funny—for a Bears fan.

It’s been awhile since Obama has interacted with Packer fans. His last trip here was in February.

Obama hasn’t interacted with Packer fans, at least those in Wisconsin, since February 15, when he visited a Master Lock facility in Milwaukee. Obama has made dozens of trips to other swing states since then, but has shown little urgency about a return to Wisconsin. His schedule next week includes stops in two battleground states – Nevada and Ohio – and over the weekend he stopped in New Hampshire, but there’s no sign of Wisconsin visit.

That’s odd. Not only is Wisconsin not a sure thing for Obama, it’s at least a toss-up, and one could argue it actually leans slightly toward the Republicans.

Obama won Wisconsin 56-42. That alone probably accounts for the assumption that the president will win it again. And Republicans haven’t won the state in a presidential contest since 1984 – quite a dry spell.

But those numbers are deceiving and recent history suggests that the state is moving to the right.

It’s true that the Republican presidential ticket lost Wisconsin in 2000 and 2004. But it did so by a total of 17,500 out of 5.5 million votes cast – or .003 percent. In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush by just 5,500 votes, out of 2.5 million. And in 2004, John Kerry defeated George W. Bush by a margin of just 12,000 votes, out of nearly 3 million.

Ten years ago, Scott Walker, a conservative reformer, won a special election to serve as Milwaukee county executive. He was reelected – in Wisconsin’s most populous county and one of its bluest – in 2004 with 57 percent of the vote and in 2008 with 59 percent. (Milwaukee, it should be noted, had a socialist mayor as late as 1960.)

Over that same time period, the Wisconsin legislature moved rightward. In 2001, Democrats had an 18-15 majority in the state senate and Republicans had a 56-43 majority in the state assembly. In 2009, Democrats had that same majority in the state senate (18-15) but had won the state assembly, with a 52-46 majority there. But by 2011, Republicans had majorities in both chambers – 19-14 in the state senate and a whopping 60-38 in the assembly.

In 2010, of course, Walker was elected governor, defeating Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett 52.3-46.5. After the passage of Walker’s budget repair bill led to massive protests, Republicans lost two state senate races in marginal districts in recall elections, but in a statewide race seen as a proxy for support for Walker, conservative supreme court justice David Prosser narrowly defeated liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenberg.

Most important, however, was Scott Walker’s victory this year in the gubernatorial recall election on June 5. In a rematch against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker, heavily targeted by national unions and Democratic special interests, not only won, but in fact increased his 2010 margin of victory, 53.1 to 46.3.

That contest also left Republicans in the state with a strong organization tested in an actual election just 5 months before the 2012 election. The Walker recall offices immediately became RNC victory centers after the recall election.

The upcoming U.S. Senate race could also help the top of the ticket. Tommy Thompson, the well-known former governor, will face Representative Tammy Baldwin from Madison. Baldwin’s major advantage will be money. She’s a good fundraiser and national Democrats are keen to retain the seat being vacated by Democratic senator Herb Kohl. Her liability is a voting record that places her well to the left of Barack Obama. While it’s possible that her presence on the ballot could have the effect of making Obama look more moderate by comparison, it’ll certainly make it easier for Republicans in the state to portray Democrats as out of touch with Wisconsin voters.

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