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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Former Gov. Mitt Romney

Former Gov. Mitt Romney

Wisconsin plays prominent role in close presidential election

In an election being watched by the world, Wisconsin has become one of a handful of decisive political battlegrounds experts say could decide the election.

Wisconsin has proven a politically complex place. The state has not voted Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan in the mid 1980s and just four years ago in 2008, Obama won convincingly by 14 points.

But that is only half the story. A series of high profile events over the last few years have Republicans seeing an opportunity for victory in Wisconsin.

In 2010, Republicans, riding a wave of conservatism that swept across the nation during midterm elections, took a U.S. Senate seat, the governorship and control of state government from Democrats. Then came the historic response to Gov. Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill that, in the end, saw Walker and Wisconsin’s Republicans make a defiant political statement by coming out of the recall efforts against them largely unscathed, if not encouraged.

Now, where once stood “Fighting Bob” Lafollette and U.S. Senator Russ Feingold are nationally prominent Republicans like Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus who call Wisconsin home.

In just two years, Wisconsin went from undeniably blue to notoriously purple.

It is within this context that Wisconsin has become one of a handful of battleground states that experts say will decide this election.

“For the last week or so, Wisconsin has been probably in the top five states in terms of attention we’ve been getting from the national campaigns,” said University of Wisconsin Political Science Professor Barry Burden.

In the week leading up to the election, all four candidates on the Democratic and Republican tickets made campaign stops here, Obama twice. Monday, the day before the election, Obama made his second trip of the campaign to Madison, and was joined by Bruce Springsteen in front of 18,000 supporters. Friday, Romney held a rally in Milwaukee in front of thousands.

Also, the presidential and vice presidential visits are underscored by a flurry of campaigning by top surrogates from each party, from former president Bill Clinton on behalf of Obama to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for Romney.  

“It really is a prime target for both parties,” Burden said.

However, despite the emergence of Wisconsin as a breeding ground for conservative all-stars, as well as the millions of Republican dollars being spent trying to sway what few undecided voters there are left, polls have remained in Obama’s favor.

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“Republicans still think they have a shot here, but it’s an uphill battle just because the Obama campaign has generally has been viewed as the leader,” Burden said, adding that only after Romney’s inspired-or Obama’s uninspired-performance in the first presidential debate and the choice of Janesville-native Paul Ryan as the Vice Presidential candidate did the polls show Romney even with Obama.

Wisconsin’s role in the election, evidenced by the flurry of in-person campaigning and unrelenting political advertisements, my be as a state that plays a decisive role, but to most political observers, including Burden, Ohio is “the real prize.”

The 18 Electoral College votes up for grabs in Ohio make it ground zero for both campaigns, and Wisconsin plays a still significant secondary role.

“For the Obama campaign, if they lose Ohio, they are still counting on Wisconsin and Iowa being in their camp,” said Burden. “So it provides a kind of safety net for them. The Romney campaign realized that if they lose Ohio, they’ve got to pick up other states, so they’ve begun to look at Wisconsin in a more serious way.”

But the presidential race is not the only Wisconsin election demanding national attention. The heated race between former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and Democratic Madison congresswoman Tammy Baldwin for an open U.S. Senate seat could decide which party controls the Senate.

The race is by far the most expensive, and negative, senate election in state history, with outside groups now having spent approximately $45 million.

Recent polls suggest a virtual coin flip between the two candidates, but Burden said the presidential and senate elections are closely connected and whoever carries the state, Obama or Romney, will largely correlate with who wins the senate election.

In fact, Wisconsin has never voted for a Republican for senator and a Democrat for president in the same election.

The national spotlight in presidential elections is nothing new to Wisconsin. In 2004, Wisconsin was the closest of all the states in an election where “a tip in a few states would have made all the difference,” according to Burden.

Time will tell whether Wisconsin lives up to the hype when voters head to the polls Tuesday, but there is no doubt the stage is set for an historic showdown.

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