With Tuesday’s election, Wisconsin seemed to contradict its Republican shift in 2010 in its statewide elections, while also maintaining that shift at more local levels.
The three Democratic candidates running for federal level positions – President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin and state Rep. Mark Pocan – won their elections.
Meanwhile, the Republicans remained in control of Wisconsin’s State Assembly and took back control of the State Senate. Gov. Scott Walker also won his election in 2010 and easily defeated a recall challenge in June.
University of Wisconsin political science professor Ken Mayer said these seemingly paradoxical wins show the state has a strong independent tradition.
“We now have one of the most conservative senators and one of the most liberal senators in the Senate, and we elected them two years apart,” Mayer said. “And we have unified Republican control of state government. The state’s voted Democratic [for president] over the past 20 years, and Obama won with 52 percent of the vote. We are a purple state.”
This election cycle, the Senate race was among the most closely followed, and the presidential candidate campaigns visited the state often.
Obama made three visits to Wisconsin in the five days prior to the election. Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, hails from Janesville.
Mayer said Wisconsin is becoming increasingly important in national politics, but he added it is unclear what implications this has for the state.
“For a state of our size, I think we have more influence than other similarly sized states,” Mayer said. “I think that’s true, but the harder question is, ‘what does that mean?’ That’s a different question because it’s difficult to draw a direct link between the kinds of influence that a state can have on a national debate and what that means specifically for the state.”
Walker and Ryan are among the most influential members of the Republican Party, and the party’s national chair, Reince Priebus, is also from Wisconsin.
Common Cause in Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck said Wisconsin often goes back and forth between both parties, moves he believes leads to less compromise. He noted some of Wisconsin’s most famous elected officials like Bob LaFollette and Joe McCarthy had almost opposite political ideologies.
“There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground in Wisconsin anymore; we kind of lurch back from right to left and then back again,” Heck said. “One of the things people hunger for is a bit more bipartisanship. There have been eras in Wisconsin’s history where the parties have come together, and one of those periods was when Tommy Thompson was governor.”
However, Heck noted Thompson had to swing to the right in order to win the Senate Republican primary and lost to Baldwin partly because he could never shift back to the center.
As for next session’s Republican-led Legislature and the governor, Heck said last year’s redistricting may have helped them gain that majority. He added the Republicans still need to work with the other side in passing legislation.
“If [the Republicans] think this gives them a mandate to ram stuff through, they are making a huge mistake,” Heck said. “Wisconsin is a state where you have to govern like Tommy Thompson governed.”