GovernorJames Doyle (D)
SenatorsHerb Kohl (D)
Russell Feingold (D)
- 5 D, 3 R
- 1 through 8
Wisconsin, tucked off north of the main east-west routes across the country, was at the beginning of the 20th century—and again at the century’s end—one of America’s premier “laboratories of reform,” in Justice Louis Brandeis’s phrase, a state originating new public policies, observing whether or not they worked, and serving as an example for other states. Wisconsin’s reputation for innovative public policy was established during the Progressive era that began around 1900 and owes its development to an extraordinary governor, Robert La Follette Sr., and the state’s German heritage. Wisconsin was settled first by New England Yankees, and then by waves of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. The German language is seldom heard now, but the once plainly German beer brands and today’s microbrews now seem quintessentially American. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germans were among America’s most numerous immigrants, and until the 1890s probably the most distinct. They implanted, on the rolling dairy land of Wisconsin and the orderly streets of Milwaukee, their separate religions, often retaining their language and maintaining old customs, from country weddings to beer drinking—a source of friction in temperance-minded America—to eating bratwurst. Wisconsin still has an orderliness and steadiness that owes something to its Germanic heritage, evident in its excellence in precision manufacturing, its low crime rates, its respect for higher learning and its hold on its people—the state ranks number five in the percentage of people born there who are still living there. In the 2000 census, 30% of Wisconsin residents reported being of German descent.
Politically, the Germans were not monolithic. Their origins were diverse and they were spread too widely across the nation. But where they were concentrated, there was a distinctive politics, basically American, but with echoes of progressive ideas then popular in German-speaking countries in Europe. Nowhere was the politics of German-Americans more apparent than in Wisconsin. This is one of the two states that gave birth to the Republican Party in 1854 (the other is Michigan), and Germans, then arriving in America in vast numbers, heavily favored it. They abhorred slavery and welcomed the free lands Republicans delivered in the Homestead Act, the free education promised by setting up land grant colleges, and the transportation routes constructed by subsidized railroad builders. Then came the Progressive movement of La Follette, elected governor of Wisconsin in 1900. Up to that time a conventional Republican politician, La Follette completely revamped the state government before going to the U.S. Senate in 1906. At a time when Germany was the world’s leader in graduate education and the application of science to government, La Follette had professors from the University of Wisconsin help develop the state workmen’s compensation system and income tax. The Progressive movement favored rational use of government to improve the lot of ordinary citizens, an idea borrowed partly from German liberals and adopted by the New Dealers a generation later. All these programs were an attempt to bring bureaucratic rationality—Germanic systematization—to the seemingly disordered America of free markets and multiple cultures, gigantic fortunes and vast open spaces.
La Follette became a national figure. He tried to run for president in 1912 as a Progressive, but was shoved aside by Theodore Roosevelt. He did run in 1924 on his Progressive ticket and won 18% of the vote, the best third-candidate showing between 1912 and 1992. He ran strongest in the northern tier of states from Wisconsin west and along the West Coast, the same area of strength of later liberals like George McGovern of South Dakota, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, and Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, both of Massachusetts. After La Follette died in 1925, his sons carried on his tradition, progressive at home and isolationist abroad. Robert La Follette Jr., served 22 years in the Senate; Philip La Follette was elected governor in 1930, 1934 and 1936. Philip created his own Progressive Party in 1934, with ominous overtones: a “Cross in Circle” symbol his critics called a circumcised swastika, huge rally-like parades reminiscent of some in Europe at the time and a call for the governor to propose all legislation. But Philip lost in 1938 and did not run again, and Robert Jr. ran for re-election in 1946 as a Republican but lost the primary to Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy’s charges that Communists were influencing American foreign policy fed on the inarticulate convictions of many in Wisconsin and elsewhere that the United States should have been fighting Russia as well as Germany in World War II. McCarthy’s national prominence made Wisconsin seem like a Republican state. But he won by narrow margins, and the La Follette Progressive tradition was taken up by liberal Democrats like Sens. William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson and Gov. Patrick Lucey. Like most liberals of their era, these progressives saw Washington rather than Madison as the main site of their laboratory of reform. Wisconsin, a mostly Republican state in the mostly Democratic years from 1944 to 1964, became a mostly Democratic state in the mostly Republican years from 1968 to 1988.
Wisconsin’s economy likewise has been an outgrowth of its immigrant heritage. Its high-skill, precision manufacturing economy jumped into gear in the late 1980s, and helped lead the nation’s export boom of the 1990s. Yet much of the political focus remained on the dwindling number of dairy farmers. Wisconsin ranks No. 2 in milk production and No. 1 in cheese production. But thanks to improved productivity, the number of dairy farms has declined from 105,000 in 1960 to 45,000 in 1980 to 21,000 in 2000. For years, the federal milk price-fixing system was biased against Wisconsin, with prices higher the farther a farm is from Eau Claire. The Milk Income Loss Contract program, adopted in 2002, is biased toward Wisconsin, with a limit on individual payments that works against big dairy farms in California. (California is threatening to overtake Wisconsin as the nation’s leading cheese producer. Will Wisconsin continue to put the words “America’s dairy land” on its license plates?)
In the 1990s, Wisconsin was a laboratory for reforms of a different nature. The motivating force was another Republican governor, Tommy Thompson, who beat a liberal Democrat in 1986. He cut taxes, sponsored a school choice program, and passed a series of welfare reforms—the nation’s most thoroughgoing—that dramatically cut caseloads. Across the nation, other governors and leaders of the Republican Congress watched Wisconsin’s experiment with interest. It’s a fair question whether the 1996 overhaul of federal welfare policy would have passed without Wisconsin’s example to give its backers confidence. Since Thompson left to be become President George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services Secretary in 2001, Wisconsin has moved back toward the Democrats. It was a target state in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, when Democrat Al Gore carried it 47.8%-47.6% and then John Kerry won it 49.7%-49.3%. In 2008, it gave a resounding 56%-42% majority to Illinois Democrat Barack Obama. Starting in 1992, it has elected only Democratic senators, though sometimes by narrow margins, and Democrats have a 5-3 edge in its U.S. House delegation. In 2002, Wisconsin replaced Thompson’s successor as governor, Scott McCallum, with Democrat Jim Doyle, who won less than 50% of the vote. Also that year, Republicans won solid majorities in the state Senate and Assembly, but then in 2006, Democrats captured the Senate and in 2008, the Assembly. Economic distress played some role in these results. Wisconsin’s steady workers were dismayed by the closing of a General Motors sports utility vehicle plant in Janesville, and unemployment has soared in Racine and Green Bay.
Wisconsin has a political pattern the opposite of most other Great Lakes states, where the biggest metro areas are Democratic and the countryside Republican. The three suburban counties around Milwaukee voted more than 60% for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008, and metro Milwaukee delivered a smaller Obama percentage than the rest of the state. The western Wisconsin counties along the Mississippi River—whose scenic beauty rivals that of the Rhine—have moved heavily toward the Democrats, and so in 2008 did the heavily Catholic Fox River Valley around Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh. And while Thompson’s welfare program was aimed primarily at Milwaukee, Doyle has come up with policies—increased tax credits for farmers, certification of organic farms—with appeal in rural areas.
The 2010 election will indicate whether these trends are lasting. Doyle is not term-limited and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who has won three terms by narrow margins, is up again. But there are a few crosscurrents. In April 2008, voters ousted a Doyle appointee on the Supreme Court in favor of a northern Wisconsin judge who campaigned on a pro-business, tough-on-crime platform. They also voted to restrict the governor’s veto. Previously, Wisconsin governors could veto specific words in a bill passed by the Legislature; Thompson actually crossed off letters within words to create new ones, and Doyle in 2005 diverted millions of transportation dollars to schools by crossing out some words. By 71%-29%, voters imposed some limits, though analysts say the veto power here remains stronger than in any other state.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections, starting in 1988. But sometimes the margin has been exceedingly narrow. Al Gore carried Wisconsin by only 5,708 votes in 2000, John Kerry by only 11,384 in 2004. In both elections, the state was inundated by ads and lawn signs by both campaigns, and was especially heavily contested in 2004. Kerry stumbled when he came to Green Bay and referred to “Lambert Field” —it’s Lambeau Field, as any Cheesehead can tell you. But Kerry perhaps atoned by abjuring the Northeast Dairy Compact. In both these races some historic patterns were reversed. Bush carried metro Milwaukee, which casts about one-third of the state’s votes, while Gore and Kerry carried many historically Republican or marginal counties in western Wisconsin. Indeed, this was the only rural part of the country where Gore and Kerry carried large numbers of counties and ran ahead of Democratic norms.
Then in 2008, Wisconsin fell off the target list. Although polls tightened after the Republican National Convention and there was speculation that vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin might attract votes in the rural North, it became apparent by early October that Illinois Democrat Barack Obama was far ahead. He ended up winning 56%-42%, carrying 59 of the 72 counties. Republican John McCain carried only one of the eight congressional districts, in the steadily Republican Milwaukee suburbs, and he barely won in the state’s fastest-growing county, St. Croix, just east of St. Paul, Minn. Obama made especially large gains over previous Democrats in the Fox River Valley and in the rural southwestern counties.
Wisconsin once had one of the nation’s most influential presidential primaries. It knocked Wendell Willkie out of the race in 1944, helped John F. Kennedy establish his lead over Hubert Humphrey in 1960, prompted Lyndon B. Johnson to withdraw as Eugene McCarthy was about to beat him here in 1968, gave George McGovern his first victory in 1972 and chose “New Democrat” Gary Hart over Minnesota neighbor Walter Mondale in 1984. After that, Wisconsin’s primary, even after it was moved from April to March, tended to be ignored. So in 2003, the Legislature moved the date up another month, to February 17, 2004, the only primary held that day. Wisconsin saw heavier campaigning than it had in years, at least for a few days. It may have proved crucial. Kerry led John Edwards 40%-34%, with Howard Dean in third place with only 18%. Dean went back to Vermont and ended his campaign, while Edwards failed to get the momentum a victory here might have given him. Wisconsin does not have party registration and few people bothered to vote in the uncontested Republican primary.
Wisconsin scheduled its 2008 primary on February 19. A week earlier, Obama swept the primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle campaigned actively for Obama and he was endorsed by longtime U.S. Rep. David Obey, the dean of the Wisconsin congressional delegation. Obama outspent Hillary Rodham Clinton on television 5-to-1, and he won a smashing 58%-41% victory, demonstrating, as he did in the Iowa caucuses, that he could prevail among a mostly white electorate. He carried all eight congressional districts and lost only 10 counties, mostly at the edge of the state and presumably out of range of most television stations. Clinton got the votes of 50% of women, but Obama got the votes of 67% of men. He won 68% of the vote in Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin at Madison and 64% in Milwaukee County, with its large black population. Turnout topped 1 million, far above that in recent years, though just slightly below the turnout in 1972, when McGovern’s 30% of the vote beat George Wallace’s 22% and Hubert Humphrey’s 21%.
There was less action on the Republican side. McCain had serious opposition only from Mike Huckabee, who was far behind in delegates, and the two campaigns together spent about as much money on ads as Clinton did, which is to say that each spent about one-tenth the amount that Obama did. Turnout was 410,000, below that of the primaries in 1968, 1976, 1992, 1996 and 2000, and less than half the turnout in 1980. McCain beat Huckabee 55%-37%. Huckabee did well enough in the central and western parts of the state to carry the 3rd and 7th congressional districts. McCain ran best in the Milwaukee suburbs. On Election Night, he was able to say, “Thank you, Wisconsin, for bringing us to the point where even a superstitious military aviator can claim with confidence and humility that I will be our party’s nominee for president of the United States.”
|111th Congress: 5 D, 3 R|
Wisconsin lost a congressional district in the 2000 census. Ordinarily that would trigger a fierce battle between a Republican governor and Assembly and Democratic state Senate. But in May 2001, 5th District Democrat Tom Barrett announced he was running for governor. His north Milwaukee district had lost population and was easy to eliminate. The result was a consensus plan, approved by the congressional House delegation, passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed by the governor in March 2002. This is one state that produced a plan with regularly shaped districts with obvious communities of interest. It was also a plan that enabled all eight incumbents running to win re-election easily.
Wisconsin is not expected to lose a House seat in the reapportionment following the 2010 census. Democrats now hold the governorship and have majorities in the state Senate and Assembly, for the first time since Republican Tommy Thompson unseated Democratic incumbent Tony Earl in 1986. If they hold on in the 2010 election, they will have control of redistricting. But growth has been relatively even throughout the state, Democrats have a 5-3 edge in the U.S. House delegation, the heavily Republican Milwaukee suburbs will inevitably dominate one seat and the other two Republican congressman, Tom Petri and Paul Ryan, have been running well ahead of party lines. So it does not seem that there will be politically significant changes resulting from any redistricting plan.