Last Updated:October 31 @ 07:49 am

Wisconsin center of Republican wave

By Scott Bauer and Brian Bakst

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin Republicans seem to have it all.

Native son Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's running mate. Gov. Scott Walker is a national conservative hero after surviving a recall vote. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson is vying to capture an open Senate seat held for more than 50 years by Democrats. And Wisconsin's own Reince Priebus heads the Republican National Committee.

Now they're focusing on the crown jewel: delivering Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes for Romney. It won't be easy. Barack Obama cruised to victory by 14 points four years ago, and maintains a slight lead over Romney in polls. And Wisconsin hasn't gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Still, the fact that the goal is even plausible shows how much Wisconsin's politics have changed in the few years since GOP nominee John McCain was blown out here in 2008 and Democrats held control of the statehouse. Wisconsin has a long tradition of political moderation, but voters have become more conservative since the recession slammed the economy and government deficits rose. A group of rising GOP leaders has taken advantage with a message that relentlessly emphasized jobs and making government less costly.

It's an approach that will work here for the long haul, they insist, and can serve as a model for Republicans competing in other states with economic challenges.

"This is exactly what we've wanted to see, be the center of attention and have people stop and listen and say, `What's Wisconsin doing?'," said Milwaukee-area tea party organizer Tim Dake. "We're flexing political muscle but we spent a long time building it up."

Walker's victory in the 2010 governor's race came as the biggest step up for the Wisconsin party. Immediately upon succeeding Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, Walker moved to strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights on the grounds that the state could no longer afford rich union contracts. His subsequent battle with organized labor, and resounding victory in a recall election, raised Walker's conservative profile and bolstered his claim that Republicans are in tune with the concerns of average taxpayers.

Walker and Ryan will have prominent speaking roles at the national party convention, which is being organized by Priebus.

Walker, Ryan and Priebus represent a shift to the right from the more moderate Republicans - other than communist-hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s - who tended to represent Wisconsin since the party was founded at a little schoolhouse in Ripon in 1854. Robert La Follette Sr., who was the Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1924, was a social reformer. Former Republican Govs. Lee Dreyfus signed the nation's first statewide gay rights bill in 1982 and Thompson reformed welfare in the 1990s.

That approach changed in 2010, when advocates of small government took over the party. Besides Walker's victory, tea party candidate Ron Johnson beat liberal Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and control of both houses of the Legislature flipped from the Democrats to Republicans. Walker won by 7 points in his recall victory two months ago.

"A number of us have been talking about these big, bold ideas for years," Walker said in an interview. "In 2010, it kind of all came together."

Walker said that as they rose in the party, he, Ryan and Priebus, who are all in their 40s, talked about the need for Republican candidates to focus almost exclusively on plans for fixing the state and nation's economic and fiscal woes. While Walker drew up his controversial budget cut proposal for the state, Ryan advanced a congressional plan for overhauling federal entitlement programs, including converting Medicare to a voucher system. Ryan's selection for the GOP ticket has made his plan a centerpiece of the presidential campaign.

"We're all going to talk about essentially the same thing, we're going to repeat it over and over again, and more importantly than that, we acted on it," Walker said. "This has become the testing ground for bold reform ideas."

Democrats insist the GOP swing will prove short-lived after voters see that the conservative policies don't produce prosperity or address average people's needs. The Wisconsin economy, still dependent on manufacturing, has continued to struggle, with unemployment at 7.3 in July. Walker is also falling far short of his stated goal of creating 250,000 jobs over four years.

"2010 was a fluke," said Matt Canter, a Wisconsin native and spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The recall was an isolated incident. ... In a presidential year Wisconsin voters will favor the same values and priorities that they have for many decades."

Wisconsin is among a group of Midwest states pivotal to the presidential race. Both campaigns are showering money and attention on the region, especially Ohio, Iowa and Michigan, where Republicans also made gains in 2010. Recent polls that showed Obama with a small lead over Romney in Wisconsin were conducted before Ryan's selection as Romney's running mate.

Obama's campaign has had a head start in the state. It has opened more than 40 offices and briefly aired television ads here; Romney's campaign has 25 offices and is tapping into the network Republicans used to help Walker beat back the recall attempt.

Democrat Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who lost to Walker in both 2010 and in the recall, said Ryan's selection could make the state more closely contested.

"Up to this point, it has certainly not been a battleground state in terms of resources," Barrett said. "Both sides will ratchet it up in Wisconsin."

Wisconsin residents have grown used to, and a little fatigued, by the attention.

"We're kind of like the political weather vane," said high school English teacher Dream Gunther, 38, of Milwaukee, an Obama supporter. "We're at the forefront of change."

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3 Comments

  1. badger2Comment by badger2
    August 18, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    “high school English teacher Dream Gunther, 38, of Milwaukee, an Obama supporter.”

    OMG! Teacher – Milwaukee – Obama supporter! I’m shocked!

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  2. JDZComment by JDZ
    August 19, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    It should be obvious that both sides (Obama and Romney) have decided that the elections this year is a critical point in our history and will define the America of the future. They could very well be right in that the liberal mindset in this country has gradually taken more and more control of our country. The entertainment industry, the media, our public educational system, and many state and local governments are dominated by liberal Democrats. This liberal obsession with the collective (which is one of the main themes of socialism) rather then the individual has grown to such extensive levels with little concern about the impact on the country at large that we now have a huge national decision to face in November.

    The liberal activists, whether progressives, communists, socialists, or just well meaning people, have turned the country so far away from its roots and the whole basic premises of the American experiment that it has come down to which philosophy wins out in the elections this year, our American based capitalistic system built around individual freedoms and our private industries, or a socialist system built around the “collective” and huge government entities that dictate our choices and constrain individual freedom to be all that we can be.

    The Romnet/Ryan camp are “all in” to preserve the America that has been the envy of the world for two hundred years whereas the Obama agenda is to finish the conversion of America into a socialist country which mirrors many other such countries in the world who cannot hold a candle to what America has achieved to date.

    The choice is on the table for the voters to decide. My worry is are there enough educated American voters that truly understand what is at stake in this election so that they can make an informed decision.

    What is happening in Wisconsin gives me hope that the “silent majority” are beginning to see that this election is not Republicans versus Democrats, it is much bigger then political parties because it is an ideological decision that is on the table. Is it socialism or capitalism?

    The Libs have very done an excellent job of stacking the deck against Romney/Ryan by building huge voting blocks that will vote to maintain their self serving interests in the upcoming elections. Voters that are on the public dole (100 million on welfare), the national unions who are complicent in growing the entitlement mentality, the environmental and green energy activists who are getting rich pursuing their self serving interests, in the case of Obama they have 90 % of the Black vote, they have done a good job of convincing Hispanics that it would be better for them under socialism then capitalism, etc.

    Even with the total failures of the Obama administration to turn the economy around and are actually making it worse, they could still stay in power. Disasterous situation.

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  3. CharieComment by Charie
    August 19, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    ***Walker is also falling far short of his stated goal of creating 250,000 jobs over four years.****

    I’ve heard this over the past year and a half from people who should know better but think it makes some kind of point, which it doesn’t. If my math skills haven’t failed me completely, that statement seems to imply that every year since he was elected he should have added 62,500 jobs per year. I submit that with even the tiniest bit of help from the Democrats, this could possibly have been done even though jobs simply don’t come in on a set schedule and at a certain time no matter how people wish it. Is it too much to ask that Gov. Walker be in office for at least 3 years before this comes rolling out on the table. Silly me, of course not.

    A little history lesson:

    Senate Democrats flee to Illinois so they don’t have to face votes

    Unions send their hysterical union people to the Capital to hold up proceedings as long as possible and even trash the capitol, if necessary.

    Then there are the recall efforts once the Dems return and not just against the Governor and Lt. Gov., but a bunch of Senators.

    The Republicans launch a counter recall.

    Then the Governor and Lt. Gov. keep their positions with a remarkable turnout by Republicans and with the help of others who didn’t believe in the recall.

    Someplace in all this chaos the Dems manage to vote down an iron ore mining bill which would add beaucoup jobs to this state. A couple of Indian tribes come in on that and testify against the bill (my own tribe, more’s the pity)but they like their Casinos which the Republicans years back were reluctant to OK. BTW, they donate huge sums to the Democrats.

    We used to mine iron ore in this state and it did nothing detrimental to the environment. Minnesota and Michigan both mine iron ore.

    It really surprises me that Governor Walker and the Republican legislators have been able to get anything done.

    They’re a brave bunch and I salute them.

    For anyone who’s interested, the Capitol “singers” still come out every noon to serenade one and all and take a short trip at times to the Republican Senators’ offices to pound on their doors and once in awhile throw the doors open and shout “You effers.” That’s the state of what “Democracy looks like” in the state of Wisconsin now. Actually, it is what Democracy looks like but not the Republic for which our flag stands.

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