CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four years ago, Wisconsin Democrats controlled the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats and turned out in overwhelming numbers to help elect President Obama.
Today, the Badger State has a tea-party senator and a Republican governor who withstood a union-led recall effort this year, and it realistically could elect another GOP senator this fall and go red in a presidential election for the first time since 1984.
State Democrats gathered here hope Mr. Obama can hold on to win the state, and they are putting their Senate hopes in the hands of Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a seven-term congresswoman who trails in polls to GOP candidate and former Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Members insist they aren’t panicking, but they acknowledge there is a lot at stake.
“We have long been a pretty evenly divided state,” Ms. Baldwin said Thursday, hours before she was scheduled to speak at the Democratic National Convention. “It rarely swings [too far] in one direction or another, and I think that’s what we’ll see this November.”
Republicans have thrived in recent years in the state because of lingering dissatisfaction over the country’s rate of recovery under Mr. Obama.
In 2010, tea-party candidate and political newcomer Ron Johnson toppled incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold to become just the state’s second Republican senator in nearly 50 years.
That same year, voters elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who would go on to clash bitterly with Democrats over state employees’ collective bargaining rights, leading to a recall election that he won earlier this year.
Mr. Walker is one of several Wisconsin Republicans to have carved out a growing reputation on the national scene, along with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Rep. Paul Ryan, whose selection as running mate to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has helped push Wisconsin from a solid Obama lean to a near-tossup.
“You’ve got to think that we’re favored,” Mr. Priebus told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Monday. “Just with the momentum we’ve brought into Wisconsin [and] the fact that Paul’s on the ticket. I think we’ve proven we’re pretty good at figuring out how to win there.”
Polls consistently have shown Mr. Thompson as the favorite in the Senate race, as polls last month showed him with anywhere from a 5- to 11-point lead. If he wins, it will mark the first time since 1957 that the state will have two Republican senators.
While Republicans say Wisconsin voters have seen the light, Democrats argue that the run of GOP success is just a passing fad that is starting to wane because of what they consider a lack of accomplishments or compromise from national Republicans.
“You don’t ever really win by thinking you can obliterate the other side,” said Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat who will retire rather than seek re-election this fall. “I think we’ll get back to where we need to get, but it’s a question of how the cycle goes. Maybe it’ll take a year or three or five.”
The race will play a key role in determining whether Democrats maintain their majority in the Senate, and its result could be tied directly to the outcome of the presidential race, as is often the case in Senate and presidential elections.
Mr. Obama, who won Wisconsin by 16 percentage points in 2008, has a narrow lead of 2 or 3 points, according to recent polls. Democrats say the race will come down to turnout and that they must energize Obama voters if the president and Ms. Baldwin are to end up victorious.
“The midterms really were about who came to the polls and who stayed home,” Ms. Baldwin said. “Perhaps you could argue that every election is about that, but I think people are going to be very involved this fall.”