Wisconsin center of Republican wave

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans seem to have it all.

Native son Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney’s running mate. Gov. Scott Walker is a national conservative hero after surviving a recall vote. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson is vying to capture an open Senate seat held for more than 50 years by Democrats. And Wisconsin’s own Reince Priebus heads the Republican National Committee.

Now they’re focusing on the crown jewel: delivering Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes for Romney. It won’t be easy. Barack Obama cruised to victory by 14 points four years ago, and maintains a slight lead over Romney in polls. And Wisconsin hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Still, the fact that the goal is even plausible shows how much Wisconsin’s politics have changed in the few years since GOP nominee John McCain was blown out here in 2008 and Democrats held control of the statehouse. Wisconsin has a long tradition of political moderation, but voters have become more conservative since the recession slammed the economy and government deficits rose. A group of rising GOP leaders has taken advantage with a message that relentlessly emphasized jobs and making government less costly.

It’s an approach that will work here for the long haul, they insist, and can serve as a model for Republicans competing in other states with economic challenges.

“This is exactly what we’ve wanted to see, be the center of attention and have people stop and listen and say, ‘What’s Wisconsin doing?’,” said Milwaukee-area tea party organizer Tim Dake. “We’re flexing political muscle but we spent a long time building it up.”

Walker’s victory in the 2010 governor’s race came as the biggest step up for the Wisconsin party. Immediately upon succeeding Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, Walker moved to strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights on the grounds that the state could no longer afford rich union contracts. His subsequent battle with organized labor, and resounding victory in a recall election, raised Walker’s conservative profile and bolstered his claim that Republicans are in tune with the concerns of average taxpayers.

Walker and Ryan will have prominent speaking roles at the national party convention, which is being organized by Priebus.

Walker, Ryan and Priebus represent a shift to the right from the more moderate Republicans — other than communist-hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s — who tended to represent Wisconsin since the party was founded at a little schoolhouse in Ripon in 1854. Robert La Follette Sr., who was the Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1924, was a social reformer. Former Republican Govs. Lee Dreyfus signed the nation’s first statewide gay rights bill in 1982 and Thompson reformed welfare in the 1990s.

That approach changed in 2010, when advocates of small government took over the party. Besides Walker’s victory, tea party candidate Ron Johnson beat liberal Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and control of both houses of the Legislature flipped from the Democrats to Republicans. Walker won by 7 points in his recall victory two months ago.

“A number of us have been talking about these big, bold ideas for years,” Walker said in an interview. “In 2010, it kind of all came together.”

Walker said that as they rose in the party, he, Ryan and Priebus, who are all in their 40s, talked about the need for Republican candidates to focus almost exclusively on plans for fixing the state and nation’s economic and fiscal woes. While Walker drew up his controversial budget cut proposal for the state, Ryan advanced a congressional plan for overhauling federal entitlement programs, including converting Medicare to a voucher system. Ryan’s selection for the GOP ticket has made his plan a centerpiece of the presidential campaign.

“We’re all going to talk about essentially the same thing, we’re going to repeat it over and over again, and more importantly than that, we acted on it,” Walker said. “This has become the testing ground for bold reform ideas.”

Democrats insist the GOP swing will prove short-lived after voters see that the conservative policies don’t produce prosperity or address average people’s needs. The Wisconsin economy, still dependent on manufacturing, has continued to struggle, with unemployment at 7.3 in July. Walker is also falling far short of his stated goal of creating 250,000 jobs over four years.

“2010 was a fluke,” said Matt Canter, a Wisconsin native and spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The recall was an isolated incident. … In a presidential year Wisconsin voters will favor the same values and priorities that they have for many decades.”

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