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Wisconsin becomes 2016’s Ohio

In late summer, as national media reported that Republican Scott Walker would “finally” lose the Wisconsin governor’s mansion in November, a man and two women paraded through the state capital campus with homemade pro-union signs, warning Walker’s days in power were numbered.

Three months and a six-point margin of victory later, Walker is heading back to his state job.

And Wisconsin has proven, unforeseen by Washington, that when it comes to the 2016 presidential election, it is the “new” Ohio.

Yes, Wisconsin.

For five election cycles, Ohio has been the center of the political universe, the “must-win” for either side where all of the money, ads, precinct captains, high-powered surrogates and reporters descend — dropping into diners to eat with the locals, taking photos of closed manufacturing plants, trying to talk like a local while predicting the political wind’s direction.

“The Democrats brought Virginia and Colorado into the mix and made them like Ohio,” explained media expert Brad Todd of OnMessage, a Washington-based political-strategy firm. “Well, the next Ohio is Wisconsin.”

Since 2009, when current Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus took over Wisconsin’s Republican Party, Walker has won three times and the state GOP has won a highly contested race for control of the state Supreme Court, twice taken the attorney general’s and lieutenant governor’s offices, and won control of the legislature and retained it twice.

The only Republicans who have lost the state are Tommy Thompson and Mitt Romney, both in 2012.

Yet this is a state that Republicans have not carried in a presidential race since 1984.

“I think you can make an argument that all of the elections we have been winning there since 2009 are not a fluke,” said Todd. “The state is changing. The big fight Walker has had with public-sector unions has made those private-sector union guys change their allegiances politically.”

The super-progressives in Madison have become so rigid, so radicalized, that many blue-collar and traditional Democrats have realigned with the Republicans, he said.

“Both Walker and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson have won a lot of blue-collar votes, and with Johnson up (for re-election) in 2016 … that ballot will make Wisconsin a top target,” Todd said, adding that whoever the Democrats’ presidential nominee is will only increase the political tension.

Rep. Paul Ryan also is part of the success story of realigning blue-collar, traditional Democrats to a GOP congressman; his district voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but has consistently trended away from Democrats since then.

The biggest challenge for Wisconsin Republicans in a presidential election will be a larger voter turnout. Yet you cannot have races that generate more interest than the three which Scott Walker has endured: His 2012 recall election and this year’s re-election got 100-percent attention from the state’s voters.

So it is not as if the GOP just won sleepy off-year elections when no one was watching. They’ve won with high turnouts in all of the election cycles since 2009; the presidential cycle was higher, of course, but the midterm turnouts hit historic highs as well.

Democrats can’t try any harder than they have already; Walker has been Public Enemy No. 1, yet Democrats have lost consistently since they tried to beat him, Johnson and Ryan, three of the Republicans’ brightest stars to date.

“It’s because we have very strong candidates who appeal to independents, and the brand is healthy here,” said Todd, whose firm scored huge, historic wins up and down the ballot across the country last Tuesday.

No question, Republicans have expanded their universe in Wisconsin because of their candidates; they have started consistently winning independents by good margins, and have made inroads with blue-collar Democrats. Their candidates were enhanced by the NRA spending money on ads and identifying voters — even Democrats — willing to consider Republican candidates because of their values, not their party.

Because the GOP brand has been consistently good in Wisconsin, you will see a reflection of that in the presidential election of 2016.

You’ll also see a map of the Badger State on the television networks, which will be waiting to learn what presidential candidate carried the all-important state in order to hit the 270-electoral-vote mark.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).


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