Traditionally Blue Wisconsin Turns Red: No Democrat Since Kennedy Has Won White House Without Wisconsin
November 7th, 2010
Wisconsin Senator-elect Ron Johnson on election night after exits polls showed that 55% of independents broke for him.
Wall Street Journal
By DOUGLAS BELKIN And NEIL KING, JR.
GREEN BAY, Wisc.—Last week's election rout did more than put Republicans in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives. It upended the electoral map that propelled President Barack Obama to the White House.
Mr. Obama bagged traditionally liberal Wisconsin and its ten electoral votes two years ago, part of a sweep that also included states that hadn't tilted Democratic for decades. That went into reverse Tuesday. The party suffered heavy losses in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two big states that had backed Mr. Obama in 2008, as independent voters swung to the right. Other presidential territory—Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina—swung back to the GOP.
The depth of the party's losses outside Washington, in state-level-contests, can be seen in this working-class city. The president won handily here in 2008 along with surrounding Brown County. Last week, Republicans carried all 18 races on the county's ballots, right down to the clerk of the court. The GOP took control of the governor's office, the state assembly and the state senate—the first time the state has reverted so abruptly to one side since 1938.
Democrats also lost a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House seats. "I believe Obama can win here in 2012, but it will be a very competitive race," said Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate.
The big question now is whether the GOP gains can be sustained. Given extreme swings in the past three elections, politicians from both sides caution against extrapolating too much based on Tuesday's results.
"What happened Tuesday was truly historic," said longtime state Republican operative Mark Graul, who ran the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign in Wisconsin. "But you just can't make the assumption that this is now a rock-solid Republican state, because it isn't."
Voters in Wisconsin were driven by concerns over deficit spending and deep unease over the future of the U.S. economy. Republicans now have to successfully address these worries. In some states, GOP governors may have to cut spending and raise taxes.
Dan Parker, Chairman of the Democratic Party in nearby Indiana, described the results in the south of his state—an area vital to Mr. Obama's 2008 win—as "pretty devastating." But he added that Republicans could overplay their hand if they "make a mistake and view Tuesday as a mandate to do whatever they want," he said.
No matter what happens next, any would-be president must win states including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan—all of which are now controlled largely by Republicans. The GOP picked up more than 675 state legislative seats, dwarfing the Democrats' gain in the 1974 post-Watergate election. It took control of 19 legislative chambers, along with at least 23 of 37 governors' offices up for grabs.
For Democrats, Wisconsin's switch is particularly troubling. No Democrat since John F. Kennedy has won the White House without it.
Dotted with Catholic churches, paper mills and sports bars, working-class Brown County has followed the national tide since voting heavily for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. It embraced Bill Clinton in 1996, but backed George W. Bush in both of his campaigns.
"It's family, church and the Packers," said Green Bay Mayor James J. Schmitt, mentioning the city's famous football team. "It's simple, but it works."
In 2008, Barack Obama carried Brown County by nearly 10 percentage points, winning more votes than any previous presidential candidate. On Tuesday, exits polls showed that 55% of independents broke for Republican Ron Johnson in the state's heated Senate race. The three-term incumbent he beat, Sen. Russ Feingold, won 62% of independents when he last ran.
Mike Krajewski, who owns a small construction company in Green Bay, said he appreciated Mr. Obama's soaring campaign rhetoric in the 2008 campaign, but now feels duped. "I didn't see him spending a trillion dollars. I didn't see that coming," Mr. Krajewski said. "I don't know why we have this health care bill and my [health insurance] rates are higher."
Mr. Krajewski, 42 years old, said he was grossing nearly $2 million a year in the middle of the decade building custom homes. Then the real-estate market bottomed out. He and his wife at first made some small moves, like dropping their cable television plan and swapping their dog's food from gourmet to generic. Now they are digging into their savings to stay afloat. His vote Tuesday for Mr. Johnson, he says, was cast as a check on "wasteful spending."
Mr. Tate, the state's Democratic Party chairman, acknowledges the party took a severe beating in this demographic. "We just did incredibly poorly among independent and swing voters," he said.
Newly elected Republicans here say it was Mr. Obama's overreach that allowed them to bag all levers of state political power, the first time that has happened in 82 years. Several stars of the local Democratic Party lost their seats, including the state's Senate majority leader and the speaker of the state assembly.
The national debate over the role of government was echoed in the state. Conservatives objected when Democrats championed a high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee, alienating Green Bay voters, two hours away.
Aided with nearly $5 million, independent conservative groups built up a formidable, statewide get-out-the-vote operation in Wisconsin. Permanent GOP operations at the county level were also strengthened.
"That infrastructure will last, and expand, now that so many Republicans are in office," said Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus.
Republicans here and elsewhere now are apt to turn their attention to the gloomy economy and weak financial outlook. The federal government's fiscal woes are reflected in Wisconsin, too, where the state now faces a $2.5 billion budget gap this year.
In Wisconsin, a local Republican roofing executive, Reid Ribble, beat a two-term democrat, Steve Kagen, to win the U.S. House seat Tuesday that represents Green Bay. Referring to the new Republican governor, he said the success of the state's GOP "now depends on whether Scott Walker and the new legislature do their jobs. If they don't, things will swing back."
Sipping a Diet Pepsi at Gipper's Sports Bar, Katherine Killoran said she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 but supported Mr. Johnson on Tuesday because she felt the health-care law was passed in haste. Mr. Johnson said he wanted it repealed.
Ms. Killoran hasn't ruled out voting for Mr. Obama again in 2012. "I'm curious to see what this wake-up call will do to him," she said. "I'm wary, but I'm not dismissing him yet."
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