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?