With nearly 70,000 people storming the Capitol steps of Madison, Wis., last week and more expected to fill the city’s streets in the days ahead, the growing clash between union rights protesters and state legislators bent on fixing enormous budget holes looks likely to get messier before it is resolved.
But why Wisconsin and, more important, why now?
Besides the Green Bay Packers and dairy farms, the state is largely, and quite unfairly, seen outside the Midwest as a beatific backwater. The truth is, Wisconsin’s middle-of-the-road voting pool and history of maverick political leadership continue to make it a bellwether for national voting trends.
The urgency of his agenda just months after he election shows he is eager to take on not just Democrats, but also his own party, much in the tradition of former Gov. Tommy Thompson, whose battles for welfare reform and school choice in his state led the way for national policy changes.
Governor Walker served in the state Assembly during the Thompson years. At that time, between 1993 and 2002, he flexed his conservative muscles by supporting welfare reform and a cap on state spending.
In his campaign for the governor’s office, he ran on a platform critical of state spending and in favor of rolling back state tax increases for small businesses and top earners.
Walker's boldest move
Last week, Walker made the boldest move yet in his political career by introducing a bill that strips away collective bargaining for everything other than wages and removes other union rights from non-law-enforcement state workers – all with the stated intent of plugging the state’s $3.6 billion forecasted budget gap over the next two years.
Critics say Walker is engaged in nothing but union-busting to get a leg up in his party and earn bragging rights with his fellow Republicans following the November midterm elections, which flipped control of most state legislatures to their party.
“The perception is that Walker wants to prove he belongs in the same conversation as [New Jersey] Gov. Chris Christie and that he is someone who can be seen nationally as an innovator in cutting government and who deserves national attention,” says JR Ross, editor of Wisconsin Politics, an online media outlet that covers state news.
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.
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.”