The upper Midwest has a schizophrenic political tradition. At times in its history it has given its blessing to the most radical of progressives and liberals and staunchest of conservatives. Wisconsin is at the heart of this tradition.
Representative, governor and finally, Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” Lafollette Sr. (I) flirted with running for president in the unpredictable, four-way race in 1912 and actually did run in 1924 as an independent. He secured 17 percent of the popular vote and won his home state. He is among the founding fathers of progressivism and is a prominent figure for Wisconsinites.
The state that supports such iconic liberals has also elected arch conservatives, perhaps the most famous of these is Sen. Joe McCarthy (R). Today, conservative rising star Rep. Paul Ryan (R) calls Wisconsin’s 1st district home.
Wisconsin doesn’t straddle the center like Ohio or Florida, which is why it is not a traditional bellwether. More often, this state takes the prevailing sentiment in the country and magnifies it. Americans, predictably, fight for the political center; go too far to the left or right and expect to be pushed back into the middle by an angry electorate. So if you expect to see this liberal state leaning slightly to the right in 2010, you won’t be surprised.
Here are some of the most interesting races to watch in the BadgerState:
WI – 3 – Ron Kind (D) v. Dan Kapanke (R)
Rep. Ron Kind (D) is a British-educated legal scholar who was elected to congress in 1996. He defeated his last opponents, Kevin Barrett in 2008 and Paul R. Nelson in 2006, by more than 60 percent.
A new Americans for Prosperity poll shows Ron Kind with 44 percent against his opponent, state Sen. Dan Kapanke’s (R) 38 percent. Polling below 50 percent is a sign of vulnerability for any incumbent. With a full 18 percent undecided, however consistent with the time of year and the nature of midterm elections, this poll is a bad sign for Kind.
The most striking data in this poll is the 3rd district’s impressions of some of the legislation that Washington is touting as progress: stimulus spending and healthcare reform all are underwater at less than 40 percent approval. Nevertheless, with a Cook PVI of D+4, it would be nothing short of a political earthquake if Kind was deposed as WI-3’s perennial representative.
WI-7 – Open: Julie Lassa (D) v. Sean Duffy (R)
This open district was Rep. David Obey’s (D) for 41 years. He faced a challenge this year from Ashland County Attorney General, Sean Duffy (R). Rather than fight this one out, he opted to retire.
There is some speculation that Obey’s retirement was prompted by the findings in two unreleased polls his camp commissioned. The polls conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates in February and April cost Obey’s camp $30,500 and are probably fascinating, but their results have not been made public.
Mr. Duffy now faces the young state Sen. Julie Lassa (D). Mr. Duffy is a quasi-celebrity in his own right, having appeared on several MTV reality shows in the 1990s. Likely 2012 presidential contender, Newt Gingrich, campaigned for Mr. Duffy in July.
While there are no publically available polling data on this new matchup, this race has likely tightened since Mr. Obey’s retirement announcement. This district has a Cook PVI of D+3.
WI – 8: Steve Kagen (D) v. Reid Ribble (R)
Rep. Steve Kagen has served as Wisconsin’s 8th district representative since 2007. He defeated former Rep. Mark Green (R) with just over 50 percent of the vote in the last cycle. In a swing district, Kagen is getting some relief from the vicious primary fight being waged among this district’s Republicans.
Mr. Kagen’s most likely opponent, Reid “The Roofer” Ribble (R), a roofing contractor and working-class favorite, has recently received the endorsement of one of his primary challengers, Marc Savard (R). This race was marked by tragedy in June when another candidate, Dr. Marc Trager (R), committed suicide. Ribble’s final viable opponent in the primary is State Rep. Terri McCormick (R). While McCormick has received donations from some colorful characters outside the state, 97 percent of Ribble’s money comes from inside Wisconsin and second quarter statements show Ribble leading in funds raised.
There are no polls available for this race yet, but Kagen appears vulnerable. Kagen was the recipient of some of last month’s $28 million in DCCC television ad buys. This is also one of the few districts in the state where Republicans have a leg up; Charlie Cook gives this district a PVI of R+2.
Update: We have received some feedback from interested readers concerning this heated race and the omission of Rep. Roger Roth from this contest. At the time of this writing, his fundraising efforts had not put him in contention but he has since bounced back significantly. This from an interested reader:
You have forgotten to mention State Rep. Roger Roth; he has received nearly 93% of his money in state. He has multiple endorsements including the late Dr. Marc Trager who was the front-runner in the race before dropping out.
Also, you are incorrect in stating that 97% of Ribble’s money comes from within the state. The number is 38%!!!!
Thank you for the updates! C&E encourages all its readers to submit their input.
WI – 4 Primary: Gwen Moore (D) v. Paul Morel (D)
Long-time congresswoman Rep. Gwen Moore (D) is facing that rarest of primary challenges from within Democratic Party in 2010, a push from her right.
Sounding more like a conservative than a Democrat, Paul Morel advocates for a flat tax on consumption, with a few notable exceptions, and wants to reduce federal spending. Moore will likely prevail; the battle to determine who best represents Milwaukee will most likely go to the more liberal of the two, but it is interesting to watch candidate Morel vie for the center.
Moore has served this district since 2005 and is the first black woman to serve in Congress from Wisconsin. This district is heavily Democratic, with a Cook PVI of D+22. Whoever wins this primary on September 14 will glide into the general election.
WI – Senate: Russ Feingold (D) v. Ron Johnson (R)
In one of the most watched Senate races of 2010, (a crowded year for most-watched Senate races) 17-year veteran Sen. Russ Feingold (D) is in a statistical dead heat race with his most likely opponent, wealthy businessman Ron Johnson (R).
Feingold is a Rhodes Scholar, the sponsor of several bills, including McCain-Feingold (campaign finance reform), and a highly influential member of the Senate. He prides himself on his independence and is often critical of President Obama, though when it comes down to the vote he is usually with the party leadership.
He is a tick more liberal than the state, but Wisconsin is proud of Feingold’s independence and appreciates his crusader spirit. It is a spirit they have always championed.
It is a testament to the strength of the GOP wave in 2010 that Feingold (along with some other Senate races that have no business being as competitive as they are, e.g. California and Washington) is facing a reelection fight this difficult. Johnson has been impressive on the campaign trail so far, and Feingold is coming home to a busy summer schedule.
On Thursday, the notoriously cautious Cook Report moved this race to a tossup.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org