Speaking at a Tea Party rally on a sunny Saturday in June in southeastern Wisconsin, Paul Ryan confidently predicted Governor Scott Walker would win the recall election he was facing that coming Tuesday, June 5. “On Tuesday, we save Wisconsin,” Ryan said to applause from the crowd of 4,000. “And on November 6, Wisconsin saves America.”
Ryan’s prediction of a Walker victory wasn’t very bold. The governor’s budget reforms had been the subject of intense debate for over a year, and every public poll taken during the final month before the election showed Walker clocking in at or above 50 percent with a solid lead over his Democratic challenger.
But Ryan was a little audacious predicting that Wisconsin would hand Obama a loss in November. The president won the state by 14 points in 2008. And the same electorate that gave Walker a 7-point victory on June 5 backed Obama over Romney 51 percent to 44 percent, according to the exit poll.
But that was before Romney tapped the Wisconsin congressman to be his running mate, before Romney’s successful presidential debates against Obama, and before both presidential campaigns flooded the state with television ads.
Now, a week from the November 6 election, the state is a tossup. Control of both the White House and the Senate may hinge on Wisconsin. And both the Romney and Obama campaigns know it, as they devote much of their precious remaining time and resources here.
In the middle of October, the Green Bay media market was seeing more presidential campaign TV advertising than any other market in the country, according to NBC News. Romney and Obama are running ads in the pricey Minneapolis market to reach a few hundred thousand voters in western Wisconsin. Joe Biden campaigned in Wisconsin on Friday, October 26, and Romney, Obama, and Ryan will be there respectively on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
“On election night, the first places to watch will be Virginia and Florida. If Romney wins there, watch Ohio,” pollster Scott Rasmussen wrote on October 26, a day after his poll found Romney and Obama tied at 49 percent in Wisconsin. “If the president wins Ohio, Wisconsin is likely to be the decisive battleground state of Election 2012.” If Romney wins Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, he’ll need just one more battleground state to win the Electoral College. If Romney loses Ohio, but wins Wisconsin, he would probably need Colorado, plus Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada.
The problem is that Ohio is usually more Republican than Wisconsin in presidential elections. Bush won Ohio in 2000 and 2004 by 3.5 and 2.1 points, respectively, while losing Wisconsin each time by less than one-half of 1 percentage point. In 2008, Obama’s margin of victory was 9 points higher in Wisconsin than in Ohio.
It would be unusual, to say the least, for a Republican to lose Ohio and win Wisconsin. But there are at least five reasons why Romney could break the trend in 2012.
First, Democrats have been campaigning hard on the auto bailout in Ohio. But the issue doesn’t play as well in Wisconsin, where the bailout failed to save the GM plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville.
Second, Scott Walker’s collective bargaining reform has been very successful at keeping local taxes low and avoiding painful layoffs and school program cuts. In contrast, the collective bargaining reform in Ohio (which went further than the Wisconsin law) was enjoined before taking effect and struck down by voters in a November 2011 referendum, 61 per-cent to 39 percent.
Third, Republicans say the June recall election was a perfect dry run for the November operation. “What people don’t understand is how much work and how highly technical getting together the list of potential GOP voters is,” says RNC chairman Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Wisconsin GOP. The data collected in June could prove invaluable to getting out the vote next week.
Fourth, Ohio has been carpet-bombed by TV ads more than any other state for the past year—with the Obama campaign enjoying a 3-to-1 advantage over the Romney campaign through the beginning of September, according to the Nielsen ratings. Ohio voters may be immune to advertising at this point. In Wisconsin, the polls have been more volatile, and both presidential campaigns just went up on air last month.
And fifth, there’s Mitt Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin’s native son Paul Ryan. “I would really watch out for that First Congressional District,” which Ryan has represented for seven terms, says Priebus. “If you look at Racine and Kenosha counties and you see numbers that are markedly better than Bush in the Bush/Gore race of 2000, well, we’re going to win.” According to polls, Romney’s greatest advantage over Obama in Wisconsin is the issue of the debt. And Ryan, author of the bold entitlement-reforming budget, could help drive that issue successfully in the closing days of the campaign.
After a wild year and a half of protests in the state capital and recall elections, Wisconsin may also prove pivotal to control of the Senate.
The man Republicans are resting their hopes on is Tommy Thompson, the former four-term governor and HHS secretary under George W. Bush. Thompson started out with a double-digit lead in August over Democrat Tammy Baldwin, an extremely liberal congresswoman from Madison. As Romney slipped far behind Obama in September, though, Thompson lost his lead. He now seems to be running a point or two ahead of Baldwin in the Rasmussen and Marquette polls.
The Senate race has been much nastier than the presidential race, and Baldwin and Thompson have the favorability ratings to prove it (-13 for Thompson, -15 for Baldwin, according to a Marquette poll). Baldwin has attacked Thompson for selling out to special interests by working as a lobbyist in Washington after his tenure as HHS secretary. Thompson has attacked Baldwin for being the most liberal member of Congress: She’s voted against Iran sanctions and backed single-payer health care and numerous tax hikes.
The fact that Baldwin might become the first openly gay senator has been mostly a nonfactor in the race. Neither campaign wants to talk about it. And when a Thompson campaign aide emailed a video of Baldwin awkwardly dancing at a gay pride festival in Madison, the (brief) backlash was against Thompson. The aide was reprimanded, and the Thompson campaign has been averse to talking about social issues, even abortion. During the primary, I asked Thompson if he’d draw any contrasts with Tammy Baldwin (a supporter of partial-birth abortion and tax-funded abortions) on the issue. He answered with a corny attack line: “I can tell you Nancy Pelosi has to turn left to look at her.”
With both the Senate and the White House potentially on the line, expect all eyes to be on Wisconsin at least one last time on November 6.
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.