What an interesting state of affairs. The Republican Party has seemingly become a shell operation controlled by a vibrant and growing conservative movement. It views the GOP as a tool to put conservatives in power.
Note that a Gallup survey from June found that in every one of the 50 states conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals. Nationally, the split was almost two-to-one: 40% conservative to 21% liberal.
Where things get tricky is at the ballot box. The all-important swing voters really aren't ideological. And a surprising number of conservatives actually consider themselves Democrats. Hence, earlier this year, other Gallup polls found Democrats sizably ahead of Republicans in 29 states, including Wisconsin, and trailing in just four states.
These crosscutting trends frame the big question for election 2010 in Wisconsin: Will the conservative takeover of the Republican Party find favor with voters?
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, foresees "a very good year." He thinks control of both legislative houses and capture of the governor's office is in reach.
Jefferson has good reason for optimism. With the country locked in recession and both President Obama's and Gov. Jim Doyle's poll numbers headed downward, the Democrats' 2008 sweep is looking like a brief high-water mark.
Historically, Wisconsin voters have punished governors when the economy tanks. Just ask former governors Tony Earl and Scott McCallum. Doyle, as savvy a pol as they come, has seen his approval ratings tumble below the 50% mark.
Unhappiness with the status quo is heartfelt. Wisconsin has shed 153,600 jobs since the recession began in December 2007. A shocking 11% of Badger homeowners are behind on their mortgages or in default.
What better environment could there be for the traditional Republican drumbeat of "jobs, jobs and tax cuts"? GOP gubernatorial candidates Scott Walker and Mark Neumann sound it at every opportunity.
Democrats, with their history of tax raising and episodic business bashing, lose appeal when voters fret about layoffs and unpaid bills. Yet Democrats may ride out the tide and win next November, if conservatives overplay their hand.
I asked UW-Madison polling authority Charles Franklin if Wisconsin, long considered a swing state, was now a Democratic state, as Barack Obama's 14-point margin in the 2008 presidential election seemingly demonstrated.
Franklin sees a Republican rebound in recent polls, but cautions that the conservative base alone won't win a statewide election. Those moderates hold the balance of power in Wisconsin and virtually every other state in the union, he points out.
"When push comes to shove, a good chunk of Americans don't think of themselves as ideological," Franklin says. "Successful pragmatism is a lot more convincing to the American public than ideological purity that leads to poor performance."
Ideological purity is certainly a conservative preoccupation. Republican moderates, once a party mainstay if not its dominant voice, have been driven from the GOP tent. They're mocked as "RINOS" - Republicans In Name Only.
Indeed, a new CNN poll shows just how relentlessly ideological the new conservative-controlled GOP is: 51% of Republicans say they would prefer losing with a GOP candidate of their liking rather than winning with one who doesn't share their views. Democrats, in contrast, are far more practical: Winning is their priority, for a clear majority.
Most striking is how diverse and broad-based self-identified Democrats are. Only 38% call themselves liberal, while 40% claim the moderate tag, according to national Gallup surveys. Surprisingly, 22% of Democrats even identify as conservative, as opposed to just 3% of Republicans calling themselves liberal. And, in the no-surprise category, three-quarters of Republicans proudly wear the conservative badge.
All this boils down to a curious brew in Wisconsin. Republican candidates who pull too hard to the right just can't win a statewide election. They're buried by the huge Democratic margin in Dane County.
This is a major challenge for Republican candidates. Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was a friend to state employees, did cut into that majority by attracting the moderates that Franklin says are vital to GOP success.
But Thompson's pragmatism is no longer a Republican virtue. And the once-hearty Republican presence in Dane County has disappeared.
Look at how Kathleen Falk, weakened by two unsuccessful statewide races, still cruised to a fourth term as county executive against noisy conservative Nancy Mistele. The County Board once run by conservative Mike Blaska is now comfortably in the hands of liberal Scott McDonell.
Tammy Baldwin, meanwhile, is firmly entrenched as Second District congresswoman. Almost forgotten is how Scott Klug, a pro-choice Republican and perhaps the most gifted politician Dane County has seen in decades, held the seat for four terms before stepping down in 1999.
Dane County's hyper-Democratic turnout could be a dream killer for conservatives in 2010. What could counter it is a pervasive sense of economic insecurity next fall. Worried voters will look for candidates who they feel can turn things around. That alone could make conservatives triumphant.
Marc Eisen, the former editor of Isthmus, is a Madison-based writer.