Wisconsin Faces a Political Crossroads Tuesday. Which Way Will It Go?
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MAZOMANIE, Wis. — The most memorable part of Scott Walker’s run for president in 2016 was how he ended it: By dissing Donald J. Trump, his chief rival in a crowded race.
Mr. Walker, Wisconsin’s two-term governor, said he was bowing out to help “clear the field” so a “positive, conservative alternative” could emerge to Mr. Trump. The remark was self-serving — the Walker campaign was broke — but he had a point: Republicans never coalesced around an opponent to Mr. Trump, who went on to become the first Republican presidential nominee to carry Wisconsin since 1984.
Mr. Walker is still Wisconsin’s governor, still harboring national ambitions, and Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans have only grown more divided over Mr. Trump and the state’s place in national politics. Those dynamics are now on display as Wisconsin prepares for a major primary election on Tuesday: Mr. Walker’s bid for a third term is at stake; Wisconsin Democrats’ desire to deal blows to Trump Republicanism is intense; Republicans are deeply concerned about their future hold on state government; and the very identity of the state, which swings between progressivism and conservatism, feels up for grabs.
“This just wasn’t what Wisconsin was, not what it used to be,” said Sally Mather, 69, a retired social worker, who sat in the back room of a cafe in Mazomanie, a village of 1,700, last week.
Ms. Mather is part of the “Monday Morning Muddlers,” an informal group of women who became engaged with politics after Mr. Trump’s inauguration and now write postcards — 40 a week — to Wisconsin politicians about issues like keeping Great Lakes water clean and the risks of building a massive campus by Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics company with which state and local officials have agreed to a total of more than $4 billion in tax credits and other inducements.
“We keep ourselves sane with this,” Ms. Mather said of all the postcards. “But if Wisconsin is going to go back to the way it used to be, it’s going to be up to the grass-roots. We’ve got to get back to being decent.”
Wisconsin’s urgent struggle to define — or redefine — its political direction is part of a larger identity crisis that has rippled across the Upper Midwest since 2016. Like Wisconsin, union-rich Michigan had been seen as a given for Democrats in presidential years, but narrowly sided with Mr. Trump, revealing the possibility of a shifting set of concerns and priorities and a changed political landscape. Minnesota, which is also holding primary elections on Tuesday, stayed in the Democratic column in 2016, but Mr. Trump lost by a far slimmer margin than expected, setting off a flurry of re-examination there.
In Wisconsin, almost eight years into a Walker administration, voters are split over more than just politics. Wisconsin has veered sharply to the right under Mr. Walker and in the Trump era after a long history of widely varying ideologies and leaders: Robert M. La Follette, the famed progressive leader; Gaylord A. Nelson, the founder of Earth Day; William Proxmire, the crusader against government waste and corruption; but also Joseph R. McCarthy, who led the anti-Communist hunt of the 1950s. Where else could Ron Johnson, the conservative Tea Party senator, hold office at the same time as Tammy Baldwin, the liberal senator and that chamber’s first openly gay member?
With essential elections this fall — in addition to Mr. Walker’s re-election bid, Ms. Baldwin is in a tough race for a second term and House speaker Paul Ryan is vacating his seat — both parties are frantically battling to keep Wisconsin on a Trumpian path or pull it back toward the left.
Republicans say Mr. Walker’s record, powerful state political operation and disciplined campaign style could help completely shut out Democrats in Wisconsin if the Republicans hold their current offices — and seize Ms. Baldwin’s Senate seat in November. Two Republicans are vying in Tuesday’s primary for the nomination to challenge Ms. Baldwin: Leah Vukmir, a state lawmaker with the party establishment’s backing, and Kevin Nicholson, a former Democrat and Marine who is running as an outsider willing to speak his mind.
Much is at stake for Democrats in November. Losing Ms. Baldwin’s seat would mark an end of any real sense that Wisconsin remains purple, and that possibility has stirred more urgency for both parties. On the flip side, the prospect of regaining some measure of influence — if not the governor’s job, then control of the State Senate — would give Democrats a stake in state policy that they have been all but excluded from since Mr. Walker arrived.
Mr. Walker swept into office in 2010 as part of a red wave that also flipped both chambers of the State Legislature to Republican control. The Republicans adopted a concealed carry law, voter ID requirements and restrictions on welfare recipients. But Mr. Walker’s signature move — one that first put him on a national stage — came within weeks of moving into the governor’s office in 2011. He cut benefits to state workers, limited public sector labor unions’ ability to bargain and made deep cuts in state aid to schools. The battle that began then, in a series of fiery protests and rancorous recalls, still isn’t really over.
For people like Mary Sole, 69, of Spring Green, the entire agenda was dismal, distressing.
“Wisconsin had defined itself as progressive on issues like paying for schools and good health care,” she said. “That’s who we were, and that’s all been erased.”
But Ben Huth, a Republican who runs a sewer cleaning business and lives in Merton, west of Milwaukee, said his circumstances have improved over the last decade — simple as that.
Unemployment in Wisconsin has fallen below 3 percent. Mr. Walker has boasted of the expansion of high tech manufacturing and job training and apprenticeship programs. The governor has also pushed efforts to keep young, graduating Wisconsin residents from leaving for places like Chicago, and to lure millennial Midwesterners to Wisconsin.
Ground has been broken on the Foxconn project, which is described as the largest economic development project in the state’s history. Plans call for eventually employing as many as 13,000 workers.
“It’s just hard to argue with things going well,” Mr. Huth, 50, said.
“My company has grown,” he continued. “More employees. More sales. I’m not worried about a blue wave. As far as I’m concerned, people are going to ride this red wave. Why wouldn’t they?”
But Democrats see signs of new energy. There have been hints of it in Wisconsin elections this year: In April, voters turned an open State Supreme Court seat over to a liberal candidate for the first time since 1995. In special elections, Democrats won two state legislative seats that had long been held by Republicans, though Republicans held onto a third district. Some Democratic voters even speak of carrying a sense of guilt over the unexpected role that a few states, including Wisconsin, played in putting Mr. Trump over the top in 2016; they say they want to make up for it now.
Still, in Tuesday’s primary, Democrats face a dizzyingly long list of candidates to be the nominee to take on Mr. Walker. Residents here complain that the list is both too long and too uninspiring, and a question lingers: Can any of these people actually beat Mr. Walker?
“It’s like a game of eeny, meeny, miney, moe,” said Katy Connors, who is 67 and a retired school guidance counselor. “It’s crazy.”
Eight candidates are running, and the most striking thing about the race has been how little voters know about them. Tony Evers, a former teacher and principal who is now Wisconsin’s schools superintendent, topped the list in a Marquette Law School poll conducted last month with only 31 percent of those surveyed saying they planned to vote for him. Undecided came in higher, with 38 percent.
Among the rest: Kelda Roys, a lawyer and former lawmaker, whose campaign ad showing her breast-feeding her daughter drew national notice; Mahlon Mitchell, the leader of a state firefighter union who is African-American; Matt Flynn, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who has taken criticism for his work as a lawyer for the Milwaukee Archdiocese during the abuse scandal; Paul Soglin, the longest serving mayor of Madison; Kathleen Vinehout, a state lawmaker and farmer; Mike McCabe, known for his work with a watchdog group tracking political financing and corruption; and Josh Pade, a lawyer who once interned with Russ Feingold, the former United States Senator.
Collectively, the Democratic rivals argue that Mr. Walker has failed to spend enough for schools, for Wisconsin’s potholed roads or for broadband in rural areas. Many of them suggest that his deal to bring Foxconn to Wisconsin stands counter to the state’s longstanding values; they question the state’s use of billions of dollars to lure a large corporation and say they fear it may threaten vital water and other environmental standards.
Beneath a picnic shelter in a Kenosha park last weekend, Mr. Evers stepped to the front of a small gathering of local Democrats who had been raffling off baskets of wine, homemade potholders and jam.
“Who in here thinks Scott Walker is the Education Governor?” Mr. Evers called out, as the group laughed and jeered. “Fake news!” someone called.
A large sign on the picnic tent offered an image of a donkey cruising along on a surfboard beside a rush of ocean water. “RIDE THE BLUE WAVE,” it read. Yet not everyone here seemed certain that Mr. Walker could be beaten, even now.
After all, in only two terms in office, Mr. Walker has survived three elections. In 2012, with emotions as high as ever and Democrats marching in the Capitol over labor union limits, Mr. Walker won a recall election. Later that fall, Mr. Obama won the state.
“Wisconsin has changed a lot,” said Bobbie James-Wirth, 57, a Democrat who lives in Milwaukee. “People are hurting out here and they feel like they’ve been forgotten. So this could be the year Walker gets beat — but I just don’t know.”
Mr. Walker has no significant opposition from within his own party on Tuesday. Still, last week, he was out campaigning, pointedly critiquing his Democratic challengers during a news conference for their views on lowering the prison population, then heading off on a campaign bus tour through the state — 20 cities in five days.
“We expect,” he said, “this is going to be a close race.”