Q&A: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Political Reporters

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won the Pulitzer for local reporting in April for the second time in three years. It’s an ambitious paper that this year has expanded its political coverage for the midterms even as its newsroom shrinks—look for new political blogs and a partnership with PolitiFact. The Journal Sentinel isn’t arming itself without reason. It’s an exciting time in the Badger State—the Post’s Karen Tumulty wrote on Tuesday that the “full political turmoil” of the season “is on full display in Wisconsin.” Long-serving Democratic senator Russ Feingold is battling for his political life, and Democratic governor Jim Doyle is so spooked he’s not even running.

CJR assistant editor Joel Meares spoke with the Journal Sentinel’s Lee Bergquist, who moved from covering the environment to covering the gubernatorial race last year, and to the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Craig Gilbert, about an election cycle like no other. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

The nation is really starting to pay attention to the Wisconsin race. Why is the state one to watch this year?

Craig Gilbert: It’s been decades since you’ve had a midterm election with this many offices in play in Wisconsin. It’s unusual to have a senate and governor’s race competitive in the same year, but everything’s in play in 2010—the U.S. Senate seat, the governor’s, both chambers of the state legislature, and at least two U.S. House seats. That hasn’t happened at least since the 1960s. And it also so happens that the Democrats control all the levers of power right now because they’ve done so well in recent elections. With the combination of being in a competitive state to begin with, of the Democrats holding all the cards, and of it being a bad year for incumbent Democrats, you have this almost unprecedented opportunity for a wholesale shift of the balance of power in the state. It’s a reflection of the success Democrats have had in recent years and the fact that they have nowhere else to go but down at this point.

And yet we always seem to watch Wisconsin.

CG: Wisconsin has been a true presidential battleground. Even though it’s voted blue since the 1980s, it’s generally really close and so it’s been a huge and very tempting target for Republicans. The state has a history of weak parties and ticket-splitting, though it has become more polarized and partisan like the rest of the country. It’s typical in some ways and atypical in others. Wisconsin is pretty white and pretty blue collar compared to other states, but the blue collar white voters in Wisconsin tend to vote a little bit more blue than they do in other places.

It’s a also a high turnout state—Wisconsin and Minnesota tend to lead the country in political participation. I’ve heard demographers refer to the upper Midwest as the “civic responsibility belt.” Wisconsin led the country in the mail-back rate for the census this year and it’s always near the top with the Dakotas and Minnesota. Some of this is almost intangible. The upper Midwest has a political culture which you could probably trace back to its northern European heritage, which left behind a legacy of participation in politics, and some tradition when it comes to wars of being a little more dovish than the rest of the country. When you look at demographics that tend to be heavily Republican in other states, like rural white voters, they’re much more divided in a state like Wisconsin.

There is something about the culture of these states where people opt in instead of opting out. And if you’re writing for readers and about voters who care about politics, who are interested and engaged, it makes your job interesting.

What are the civic-minded voters of Wisconsin focusing on in the governor’s race?

Lee Bergquist: The issues aren’t that different from a lot of other gubernatorial races this year. In Wisconsin it’s really about the economy, jobs, and taxes. The Wisconsin economy is probably faring slightly better than the rest of the country. But only slightly. I think there’s a bit of a long-standing inferiority complex about our state. We’re bookended by Illinois on one end with Chicago and then Minnesota on the other. Illinois’s economy is much weaker than ours right now but there’s Chicago there, and it’s an economic juggernaut. And Minnesota’s economy has been stronger than ours. We’re worried about our competitiveness. Among the candidates there is a lot of discussion about what they will do to make the economy stronger.

Were you surprised when Democratic governor Jim Doyle decided to drop out of the race?

LB: It was a bit of a surprise but it comes down to a couple of things. He’s the governor of the state and our state’s not doing too well right now; just by virtue of his position he assumes some of the blame for what’s happening. And I just don’t think he’s been effective at addressing economic issues in the last year or so.

Tom Barrett seems to have the Democratic nomination locked up, and Scott Walker has pulled ahead of his GOP rival Mark Neumann. Why has Walker seemingly come out on top among the Republicans?

LB: I think Walker has been an effective campaigner. He has all the support of the Republican orthodoxy in the state. Neumann is more of an outsider; Walker is the Milwaukee County executive. He won the party’s nomination at the state convention, he’s attracting support from the Republican Governor’s Association, and he’s getting a lot of support from Republicans in the state. Neumann is a businessman, a former congressman, who is largely self-financed. The two messages in a way are the same. They both are calling for smaller government, less taxes, making the state more competitive in the years to come. But Neumann is trying to differentiate himself from everybody else because he’s been a successful businessman.

That message has worked elsewhere.

LB: I think it could work in Wisconsin. It’s not a matter of business experience being a negative. In our case I think it’s just a matter that Walker and Barrett have simply run more effective campaigns at this point compared to Neumann.

What’s Barrett’s approach to the GOP front-runner?

LB: Barrett and Walker have become critical of each other, and the Republican Governors Association has run ads critical of Barrett. They’ve painted Barrett as no different from Jim Doyle, someone who was for higher taxes, bigger government, and wouldn’t help out on the economy. Barrett has come back with a critical ad portraying Walker as a flip-flopper. Walker had taken a position that was fairly moderate on immigration; when Arizona governor Jan Brewer came out with their immigration plan, he said he wouldn’t go as strongly as that. About twenty-four hours later he said he would support the Arizona plan.

Walker has made an issue of “Obamacare.” How has that played in Wisconsin?

LB: I think it will resonate with a lot of voters but I don’t think that it’s black and white by any means. I would venture to say—and we haven’t done a lot of polling on “Obamacare” at all—that there’d be fifty-fifty or a slight advantage to those opposed to health care reform.

The difference is that in our state we have several state-funded health care plans for low-income people. When you add those in with traditional health care for the poor, our system of providing health care to those who need it—low-income folks—is pretty good. Health care reform had kind of been going on in our state already.

In the senate race, Democrat Russ Feingold seems to have suffered through his attachment to controversial policies like Obamacare.

CG: I covered Feingold’s first Senate campaign in 1992 and I’ve covered him a lot from Washington as well. I think his problems this year are largely due to the political climate. Feingold has had close races before; in 1998 he had a real scare running against a Republican named Mark Neumann [now running for governor]. He didn’t have a really competitive race in 2004 because the Republicans didn’t come up with a very strong candidate. So he’s never been a really dominant figure when it comes to his reelection campaigns. In some respects, it’s not a huge surprise that he would have a real battle on his hands given the year that it is. And a lot of it is going to depend on how strong a candidate his opponent turns out to be.

Of the Republicans vying to become that opponent, businessman Ron Johnson appears to be leading the pack. Where did he come from?

CG: He kind of came out of nowhere. In the past year, the Republicans have cycled through a bunch of potential challengers for Feingold—some of them flamed out for one reason or another, some of them decided not to run. Johnson emerged a little in the context of the Tea Party movement, though I don’t think you can call him strictly speaking a Tea Party candidate. He doesn’t have much of a political background, but he was very attractive to people in the party because of his business background and because of his ability to spend a lot of his own money on the campaign.

He does have some Tea Party credentials—pro-life, anti-Obamacare. How does that play in a bluer state like Wisconsin?

CG: The culture issues are not as decisive in this cycle as they were, for example, in 1998—then, abortion was a big issue in Feingold’s reelection campaign. You don’t see Republicans talking a lot about the hot-button cultural issues this cycle. They’re talking about the size of government, they’re talking about the stimulus bill, they’re talking about health care. Spending is a real issue in Wisconsin. It’s traditionally been a high-tax high-service state, and for that reason, and just because of a conservative streak when it comes to money, deficits and spending have always been real issues here. Even Democrats will traditionally play lip service to those issues; Feingold has portrayed himself over the years as a deficit hawk. Politicians in Wisconsin have been much less likely to brag about bringing home the bacon than they have been to brag about their fiscal conservatism. But this cycle particularly the stimulus and health care and deficits and jobs are front and center.

What are the sideline issues?

CG: Wisconsin is one of the states that is slated to get hundreds of millions of dollars in high-speed rail money through the stimulus plan. Republicans have taken this on—more in the governor’s race—and are running against high-speed rail as a symbol of big government and government spending. If you go back to the governorship of Tommy Thompson, a hugely successful Republican governor, he was famous for building things. It would have been hard to imagine, fifteen years ago, Tommy Thompson—even as a Republican—opposing federal expenditures of $800 million in his state for a high-speed rail line.

How does Johnson’s businessman narrative fit into the national narratives of businesspeople funding their own campaigns?

CG: Johnson loosely fits into that trend, although it’s certainly not new to have self-funded candidates with business backgrounds. Wisconsin has its own example with Herb Kohl, the Democratic senator who got elected in 1998. He’d helped his father grow this huge grocery and department store chain and then owned the Milwaukee basketball team. You’ve got a bunch of candidates like this nationally, some who will be successful and some who won’t. A lot of it will depend on how these men and women are defined by their opponents, and how they perform as candidates. It’s still an open question in Johnson’s case about how skilful a candidate he turns out to be. That’s the most important variable in this race: will voters see him as a businessman with real-world experience, or will they see him as inexperienced, unpredictable, and too conservative.

How are newer candidates like Johnson and Walker handling, or managing, the press?

CG: We’re still learning the answer to that question. Johnson hasn’t been a candidate for all that long. Like other first-time candidates I think his campaign has been somewhat protective of him, but he hasn’t been running a stealth campaign. You’re seeing a certain amount of caution from the campaign in terms of not trying to overexpose him until he’s ready. We’ve been able to reach him when we’ve needed to reach him. He’s talked to our editorial board and we’ve interviewed him as reporters.

LB: In the governor’s race, the Walker campaign is the quickest to rebut charges and backs up nearly everything with a link. Walker is very accessible. The Neumann campaign is slightly slower to respond to both a claim by opponents and press queries, but still with enough time to meet our deadlines. Neumann at times is not available on stories where he thinks he might be painted in a negative light, but instead has provided thoughtful email responses through his press secretary. Neumann and Walker have provided the most detailed policy papers.

The Barrett campaign quickly responds to our queries and to claims by opponents. But Barrett is less available than Walker or Neumann, if we want to talk one-on-one. Barrett’s spokesman works harder to spin the story and complains the most about how we handle some of our pieces. It’s really a question of style or how they approach their job. I have no complaints about any of them. They are all professionals trying to put their candidates in the best possible light.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.