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Wisconsin protest shows state's evolving political history

Protesters filled Wisconsin's state capital for a week, demonstrating against Gov. Scott Walker's plan to cut union bargaining rights. How has the state's political mood shifted from left to right?

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Yet Walker’s actions are in step with state political leaders who have gained a national reputation for taking decisive action on issues that either distinguish themselves from their own parties or set agendas for other states to follow.

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One example is former US Sen. Russ Feingold (D), a social progressive during his two terms but one who also prided himself as breaking with his party on issues like gun control. Besides providing the sole vote against the USA Patriot Act in 2001, he was one of the few Democrats who voted against confirming Timothy Geithner as US Treasury secretary.

Wisconsin voters have always rewarded public officials who do not always follow the Washington agenda, an approach that makes the state a good one for predicting the national mood each election cycle.

In November, Mr. Feingold lost to businessman Ross Johnson, a Republican with tea party leanings. In fact, Wisconsin became the poster child for Republican victories last year, with the GOP winning both legislative chambers and the governorship. The icing on the cake became the naming of Reince Priebus, a state Republican Party chairman who never held elected office, as chairman of the national party.

Wisconsin's hard right swing

The swing hard right is a long way from the state’s progressive history, including three Socialist mayors of Milwaukee over the past 100 years.

How the current revolt in Madison plays out will not be the final word on where Wisconsin’s political destiny will swing next.

Charles Franklin, a co-founder of Pollster.com, says the state’s odd mixture of embedded progressive ideals and fiscal conservatism continues to make it unpredictable. Therefore, where it leans at any given time makes it a good measure of the electorate at large.

“Balance is more the story than anything else,” he says.

All of which is making Wisconsin ground zero for the 2012 presidential election. Despite a generous majority given to Barack Obama in 2008, the previous presidential candidacies of John Kerry and Al Gore squeaked to victories in the state by fewer than 12,000 votes.

As for Wisconsin’s importance, Mr. Obama’s actions tell the whole story.

The state ranks among those he’s visited most so far. It was the first state he visited after his recent State of the Union address. Acknowledging his state will be “targeted” by Democrats, Mr. Priebus has publicly promised they will be met with a party that is better financed than ever before.

“Obama can’t win without Wisconsin,” says Mr. Ross. “If he can’t win Wisconsin, he’s done.”

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