Sunday, September 21, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 56.0° F  
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Madland: Wisconsin's weird elections and their impact on the U.S. Senate
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With our bipolar partisanship, both of our current senators could end up as one-term wonders.
With our bipolar partisanship, both of our current senators could end up as one-term wonders.
Credit:Office of United States Senator Jay Rockefeller

Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin have one of the largest ideological divides between any two senators from the same state. After 18 years of the Kohl/Feingold one-two punch, it seems odd to have two senators dedicated to canceling out each other's vote. The New York Times even ran a piece about this unusual pairing.

However, Wisconsin's electoral patterns might just make these diametrically opposed legislators the new normal.

In presidential elections, Wisconsin has gone for the Democrats since 1984, and that was back when every non-Minnesota state voted for Reagan. Meanwhile in the lower turnout gubernatorial elections, conservatives have won a majority of the votes since 1986, with the exception of 2006 when almost every non-Minnesota state in the Midwest voted for Democrats. (In 2002, meanwhile, Jim Doyle won with a plurality in an election in which Libertarian candidate Ed Thompson picked up over 10% of the vote.)

For presidential candidates, Wisconsin is a blue state. For gubernatorial candidates, Wisconsin is a red state. For the state Legislature and the House of Representatives, the districts have all been so gerrymandered to benefit one party to the point that elections are democracy-esque theater, the outcome only slightly more predictable than that of a Harlem Globetrotters game.

However, Wisconsin's U.S. Senators, with their six-year terms and statewide races, face a very different electorate than they encountered in the previous election. Take Russ Feingold's example. Feingold solidly beat a two-term Republican senator (Bob Kasten) even though he was largely unknown in much of the state in 1992 (a presidential election), squeaked by to win a second term in 1998 (a midterm), won by a comfortable margin in 2004 (a presidential election) and lost in 2010 (a midterm).

With our bipolar partisanship, both of our current senators could end up as one-term wonders. In 2016, Johnson will have to face the down-ticket wrath of an electorate coming out for a Democratic presidential candidate, maybe even Hillary Clinton, who utterly destroyed the senator when he tried to attack her on Benghazi. In 2018, Baldwin will be up in a mid-term election, with the type of electorate that benefits the Walkers and the Van Hollens of the world more than the Barretts and the Falks.

In this era of 50% + one politics, Wisconsin could see Senate seats regularly flip between parties. The days of senators like Herb Kohl who could be seen as more than the (D) or the (R) by their name are over. Tommy Thompson, a former governor who used to have massive crossover appeal, barely outpolled Mitt Romney in 2012.

This could have a negative effect on Wisconsin in the long-term. First of all, it will help further push candidates to extremes. If Ron "Why do we need government programs, can't you just ask your wealthy father-in-law for money?" Johnson can get elected, there's no need to bother with a candidate who will work to represent all Wisconsinites.

Secondly, a succession of first-term senators will prevent anyone from Wisconsin from rising to a leadership position. Seniority has its privileges and we don't have anyone like former Rep. Dave Obey working on bringing federal dollars into the state. In fact, most of Wisconsin's current elected officials work hard to keep federal money out of the state.

We get to enjoy a break from U.S. Senate races in 2014, but Wisconsin will return to this political whiplash in 2016 and 2018. It won't be smooth sailing for Ron Johnson, Tammy Baldwin or the population of the state.

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