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Why Wisconsin Is the Most Fascinating State in American Politics

Wisconsin has long been a melting pot of American politics. That’s how it stays now.

It’s where two once-powerful Senators, Joseph McCarthy and Robert La Follette, defined two of the major themes we still see at play today – what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the ‘paranoid style’, in the case of McCarthy, and progressivism in that of La Follette.

It is a place that has also proven time and again that elections have consequences. McCarthy won his Senate seat in the 1946 midterm elections amid backlash against President Harry Truman, who struggled to contain the rising price of meat as the country adjusted to a peacetime economy. He put Robert La Follette Jr. who had essentially inherited the senate seat from his father.

Four years later, McCarthy used his new platform to begin his infamous anti-communist crusade — persecuting alleged communists within the federal government, Hollywood and the liberal intelligentsia across the country. His rise came to an end after a lawyer for one of his targets, Joseph Welch, surrounded him with one of the most famous lines ever pronounced at a congressional hearing: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at last?”

The modern political geography of the state, which is rooted in this history, as well as ingrained patterns of ethnic migration and economic development, is as fascinating as it is complex.

The old base of La Follette in Madison, the state capital and teeming college town, dominates the mid-south state like a Midwestern Berkeley. But unlike California’s periwinkle-blue coast, Madison and Milwaukee — the state’s largest city, located about 90 minutes east along the shores of Lake Michigan — are surrounded by a vast ocean of scarlet.

Much of the state remains rural and conservative – McCarthy and Trump land.

And as in much of the United States, even smaller Wisconsin towns such as Green Bay (home of the Packers), Eau Claire (a hotly contested political battleground), Janesville (home of Paul Ryan, the former speaker of the Huis), Kenosha (hometown of Reince Priebus, the once ally and former aide to Donald Trump) and Oshkosh (home and political base of Senator Ron Johnson) have turned blue in recent decades.

The so-called WOW counties around Milwaukee — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — are the historic strongholds of GOP power in the suburbs, and political pundits and forecasters are closely monitoring election trends there to uncover potential national implications. Other parts of the northwestern part of the state are essentially suburbs of Minneapolis and tend to switch between parties from election to election.

The origins of the Republican Party can be traced back to Ripon, Wisconsin, where disaffected members of the Whig Party met in 1854 when they planned a new party with an anti-slavery platform. The party’s early leaders were also disgusted by what they called the “tyranny” of Andrew Jackson, a populist Democrat who built a political machine that flouted the traditional ways politics was conducted in America.

On Tuesday, the state held its primaries, and the results were classic Wisconsin: Republicans chose Tim Michels, a Trump-aligned “Stop-the-Steal” man, as their candidate to run against Governor Tony Evers, the Democratic presidential candidate. seated, above Rebecca Kleefisch, the establishment favorite. Robin Vos, the Assembly speaker who has tilted right on election issues but refused to help Trump nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election, barely held his seat.

To understand what is happening, I harassed Reid Epstein, my colleague on the political team. Reid has forgotten more Wisconsin political lore than most of us have ever absorbed, and here he gives us some perspective on why the state has become such a bitterly contested area for American democracy.

Our conversation, slightly edited for length and clarity:

You started your journalism career in Milwaukee, if I’m not mistaken. Give us an idea of ​​what has changed in Wisconsin politics in the years you’ve been reporting on the state.

In Waukesha actually. In 2002, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel still had Milwaukee suburban offices, and that’s where I had my first job, working in a handful of townships and school districts in Waukesha County.

Many of the same characters I wrote about as a cub reporter are still around. The then village president of Menomonee Falls is now leading efforts to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 election results, which, of course, cannot. The seeds of polarization and zero-sum politics that you see in Wisconsin only began to sprout twenty years ago.

Republican voters chose to keep Robin Vos but nominated Tim Michels. Help us understand the mixed signals we’re getting here.

Well, it helped that Michels had over $10 million of his own money to invest in his race, and Adam Steen, Fox’s Trump-backed challenger, didn’t have enough money for even one paid employee.

Vos, whose first legislative race I attended in 2004, nearly lost to a man with no money and no name recognition in a neighborhood where the Vos family has lived for generations. He won, but it was very close.


Behind the Journalism


How Times reporters cover politics.
We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times employees may vote, they may not support or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, a political candidate or election cause.

What is it about Wisconsin that has made politics there so zero sum? I am thinking of developments such as the Democrats’ attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker in 2012, his crackdown on union power, and the legislature’s attempts to curtail the power of Tony Evers, the current governor. What is going on? How did the state become so divided?

Wisconsin’s political and media ecosystem has long been dominated by conservative talk radio hosts. More than any other state in the country, Wisconsin’s right-wing talkers dominate the political agenda, and like Fox News nationally, they generate ratings by sparking outrage — mostly against Democrats, but sometimes against fellow Republicans.

Scott Walker grew up in this environment. A backseat MP, he became widely known for his participation in the Charlie Sykes show at WTMJ in Milwaukee. Those shows always had a villain — usually, whatever Democrat or newspaper reporter was in the host’s crosshairs that day.

If Sykes spent an excerpt attacking one of my morning newspaper articles, my office voice mailbox would be full of angry callers by the time I got to my desk. Imagine what that does to elected Republicans when they’re on the receiving end.

Skyes has since reinvented himself as a never-Trump podcast host and columnist — and he’s now training his considerable rhetorical talents against the Republican Party he once enthusiastically supported. He has traded his local influence for a national platform.

You cover many of the machinations over the control of American democracy. Is there anything unique about how these battles unfold in Badger’s land?

Republicans have such control over the power levers in Wisconsin that voters almost don’t matter. It is the most gerrymandered state legislature in the country — a 50-50 state where Republicans have 61 of 99 seats in the Assembly and 21 of 33 seats in the Senate.

There is currently no functional way for Democrats to execute any kind of policy agenda in Madison; their only hope is to have a governor veto it. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a conservative 4-to-3 majority that, with few exceptions after the 2020 election, has followed the Republican party line.

Some states, such as Michigan and North Carolina, have managed to solve many of the same problems and create a more level playing field that reflects the true balance of power between the parties. Why didn’t Wisconsin do that?

Wisconsin doesn’t offer its citizens the ability to petition the law or the state constitution like Michigan and dozens of other states do. So the only hope is through the legislature, where Republicans have shown no qualms about maintaining their grip on power by any means necessary.

On Politics regularly shows work by photographers from the Times. Here’s what Haiyun Jiang told us about capturing the image above:

When the Senate began its “vote-a-rama” for the Inflation Reduction Act, a marathon series of votes on amendments, I was on Capitol Hill capturing the vote and action as senators prepared for an inevitable long weekend.

At about 9 p.m., Senator Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, walked into the press gallery for a briefing with reporters. “I heard you all wanted some entertainment after dinner,” he said as he sat down.

Wyden, a tall man, was visibly uncomfortable sitting in an armchair low to the floor. During the briefing, he occasionally stretched his legs. I decided to wait for him to stretch again.

His demeanor reflected the exhaustion and fatigue I hoped to capture, with a long night of debates and voices looming over everyone on Capitol Hill.

Thank you for reading. We’ll see you next week.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Something you want to see more of? We would love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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