Wisconsin has been an important crucible for American politics for a long time. It is still so today.
It was here that two once-powerful senators, Joseph McCarthy, and Robert La Follette, established two major themes we still see today — , what Richard Hofstadter called “paranoid mode” in McCarthy’s case and progressivism in La Follette’s.
This is a place where elections have had consequences time and again. McCarthy was elected to the Senate in 1946 amid backlash against President Harry Truman. Truman was trying to manage the rising price of meat while the country transitioned to peacetime economics. Robert La Follette Jr. had in essence inherited his father’s Senate seat.
McCarthy took his platform and began his anti-communist crusade four years later. He persecuted suspected communists within the federal government, Hollywood, and the liberal intellectualsia throughout the country. After Joseph Welch, the lawyer for McCarthy, called him out, McCarthy’s rise ended. He said one of the most memorable lines in a congressional hearing: “Have your no sense of decency at all, sir?”
Modern political geography of the state, which is rooted both in history and deep-seated patterns economic development and ethnic migration, is fascinating as well as complex.
The state’s middle south is dominated by La Follette from Madison, its capital and a bustling college town. However, Madison and Milwaukee, the largest city in the state, are not found along the coast of periwinkle-blue California. They are instead surrounded by an ocean of scarlet.
A large portion of the state is still rural and conservative, McCarthy and Trump country.
As in many other parts of the United States of America, smaller Wisconsin cities such as Green Bay (the Home of the Packers), Eau Claire, Janesville (the former House Speaker), Janesville (the Home of Paul Ryan), Kenosha, the hometown of Reince Priebus (the former ally and former aide of Donald Trump), and Oshkosh, which is the home and political base for Senator Ron Johnson, have been blue in recent years.
The so-called W.O.W. The historical strongholds for suburban G.O.P. are Waukesha and Ozaukee in the Milwaukee region. Political pundits and forecasters closely monitor election trends in the area around Milwaukee to spot any possible national implications. The northwestern region of Minnesota is essentially a suburb of Minneapolis and has a tendency to switch between the parties from one election to the next.
The origins of the Republican Party can be traced back to Ripon in Wisconsin, where disillusioned members of the Whig Party met 1854 to plan a new party with an antislavery platform. The early leaders of the party were disgusted at Andrew Jackson’s “tyranny”, a populist Democrat who created a political machine that ran amok over traditional American politics.
Tuesday saw the state hold its primaries. The results were typical Wisconsin: Republicans elected Tim Michels as their nominee to face Gov. Tony Evers, the Democratic incumbent over Rebecca Kleefisch. Robin Vos, an Assembly speaker who voted to the right on election matters but refused to support Trump’s 2020 election results, only held onto his seat for a mere two weeks.
Reid Epstein was my colleague from the politics team. I asked him questions to help me understand what’s going on. Reid has forgotten more Wisconsin political history than most of us, so here he offers some insight into why the state is such a bitterly contested ground zero in American democracy.
This is the conversation, slightly edited for clarity and length:
If I am correct, you started your journalism career here. Let us know what has changed in Wisconsin politics over the years that you have been covering it.
Actually, Waukesha. In 2002, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had bureaus that covered the Milwaukee suburbs. That’s where I started my first job. It covered a few municipalities and school districts in Waukesha County.
Many of the characters I covered as a cub reporter still exist. Menomonee Falls’ former village president is leading an effort to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 elections. This, of course, cannot be done. The seeds of the polarization, zero-sum politics that you see in Wisconsin today were only beginning to grow 20 years ago.
Republican voters chose Robin Vos to be kept, but nominated Tim Michels. Please help us to understand the mixed signals that we are getting.
It helped that Michels had over $10 million of his own money to invest in his race and Adam Steen (the Trump-backed challenger) to Vos didn’t have enough cash for even one staff member.
Vos, for whose first legislative race in 2004 I was there, almost lost to a guy without money or name recognition in a district where Vos’ family has lived for generations. It was close, but he won.
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What is it that makes Wisconsin politics so zero-sum? I am thinking about developments such as the Democrats’ attempt to recall Gov. Scott Walker 2012, his crackdown against union power and the efforts of the Legislature to limit the power of Tony Evers (current governor). What is the deal? What is the secret to this state’s extreme division?
Conservative talk radio hosts have dominated Wisconsin’s media and political ecosystem for decades. Wisconsin’s right-wing talkers dominate the political agenda more than any other state. Like Fox News nationally they generate ratings by inciting outrage, usually against Democrats but sometimes against fellow Republicans.
This is where Scott Walker was raised. Scott Walker was a backbench state legislator who was well-known for calling in to the Charlie Sykes radio show on WTMJ, Milwaukee. Those shows had always featured a villain — usually whichever newspaper reporter or Democrat was in the host’s crosshairs that day.
Sykes would attack one of my articles in the morning newspaper, and my voicemail box at work would be flooded with angry calls by the time I got to the desk. Imagine the effect that this does to elected Republicans who are on the receiving side.
Skyes is now a columnist and podcast host who never supports Trump. He also trains his rhetorical skills against the Republican Party that he once supported. Skyes has traded in his local influence to gain a national platform.
This article covers a lot about the politics surrounding the control of American democracy. What is unique about the way these battles are being played out in Badger Country?
Wisconsin’s levers of power are so tightly controlled by Republicans that they almost make it irrelevant for voters. It is the most gerrymandered state legislature. In Wisconsin, Republicans control 61 of 99 seats and 21 of 33 Senate seats.
At the moment, there is no way for Democrats in Madison to implement any kind of policy agenda. Their only hope is to find a governor who will veto them. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is a conservative 4-to-3 majority, which has, with some exceptions following the 2020 election, voted in favor of Republicans.
North Carolina and Michigan, for example, have been able to resolve many of the same issues and created a level playing field that reflects real power balance. Why has Wisconsin not done this?
Wisconsin does not allow its citizens to petition for laws or state constitutions like Michigan, and many other states. The only way to hope is through the Legislature. Republicans are determined to keep their power by any means necessary.
What you need to know about democracy
A ‘vote a-rama’ in Congress
On Politics features regularly work by Times photographers. We are here to hear from Haiyun Jiang about how he captured the image.
As senators were preparing for a long weekend, the Senate started its “vote a-rama” for Inflation Reduction Act. It was a marathon series on votes on amendments.
Senator Ron Wyden (Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) entered the press gallery at 9:15 p.m. for a briefing. As he sat down, he stated that he heard you all needed some post-dinner entertainment.
Wyden, a tall man, was uncomfortable sitting in a low-slung sofa chair. He stretched his legs as he went along with the briefing. I waited for the moment when he would stretch again.
His posture reflected the fatigue and weariness I was trying to capture. There were long nights of debates on Capitol Hill and many votes.