- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2010

MADISON, Wis. | Until recently, Wisconsin seemed to be a Democratic strategist’s lock - a blue state getting bluer. Its two senators were well-established liberal Democrats. The governor’s office and both houses of the legislature were in Democratic hands. And President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 by 14 percentage points, one of his largest victory margins anywhere.

But something went awry on the way to the permanent Democratic hegemony.

A conservative insurgency - headed by a Republican candidate who actively courts, of all things, the “tea party” - is now making a strong bid for governor. And across the state, Democrats suddenly find themselves fighting to hold seats they once took for granted.

“Obviously, we’re all nervous about our own situations,” said state Rep. Marlin Schneider, a Democrat who has served in the state legislature since 1970 and now faces two Republican challengers and an independent. “There is a nasty mood there that has been there since the 2008 election.”

Voter disdain for those in power is being felt across the nation, including many states that have voted Democratic, such as Colorado and Nevada. But in perhaps no other is the backlash more striking than in Wisconsin.

With six months before Election Day, Republicans are pressing to claim the governor’s office for the first time since 2001, win majorities in the legislature, challenge liberal Sen. Russ Feingold with a tea party activist, and seriously contend in three of the five congressional districts held by Democrats.

The governor’s race is wide open after two-term incumbent Democrat James E. Doyle, amid sinking approval ratings and the worst state budget shortfall in Wisconsin history, decided not to seek re-election.

Scott Walker, the Republican Milwaukee County executive and a tea party supporter, overwhelmingly won the GOP endorsement and has campaigned on repealing tax increases on big business and the wealthy. Mr. Walker has also called for adopting a version of Arizona’s new immigration law that gives police more authority to question the immigration status of people stopped for traffic violations. The law is so controversial that even many Republicans in conservative states have shied away from it.

But a poll conducted by St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. in late March showed Mr. Walker leading Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor and Democratic nominee, by 16 percentage points. Mr. Walker had roughly $2 million in the bank at the end of 2009, ahead of Mr. Barrett’s $1.5 million, the latest figures available.

Since Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson left office in 2001, Wisconsin has moved steadily in a Democratic direction. Liberal Democrats Feingold and fellow Sen. Herb Kohl have not had serious challenges in recent elections.

But in the last year in Wisconsin, conservative candidates who once would have been fringe figures have capitalized on the national voter dissatisfaction. “Conservatives have really revitalized the Republican Party,” said pollster.com co-developer Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor.

Mr. Walker said his conservative message plays well with voters angry over the federal stimulus, Mr. Obama’s health care reform and Wisconsin’s ongoing budget woes. “The left has clearly overreached,” Mr. Walker said.

In the end, it’s not clear how many, if any, of these races Republicans will actually win. Democrats still have significant advantages, including a formidable ground operation. Mr. Feingold is still considered the front-runner in his race.

But the conservatives’ momentum so far has attracted attention. Their bid has been aided somewhat by luck. The unexpected retirement of liberal Rep. David R. Obey after 41 years in office opened up one door. The leading Republican candidate for his seat is tea party supporter Sean Duffy, a district attorney and former cast member of MTV’s “The Real World” who has raised $400,000 and been endorsed by former Alaska GOP Gov. Sarah Palin.

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said he thinks the state remains basically Democratic. But his Republican counterpart, Reince Priebus, said the GOP finally seems to be back on its feet here after getting “absolutely clobbered” in recent elections.

“We’ve reached the point in this state and this country where people feel the wind’s at our backs for the first time in a long time,” Mr. Priebus said.

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