Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who Will Win in Wisconsin?

Things could get pretty exciting in next year's elections.

The Democrats really don't need for things to get too exciting. They already have their work cut out for them in 2012, what with a president and a reduced majority in the Senate to defend.

Holding on to that advantage in the Senate could be a Herculean challenge.

About one–third of the seats are on the ballot in each election cycle — unless there are vacancies that make additional special elections necessary.

In 2012, the Republicans will only need to swing four seats to their side to flip control of the chamber — and Democrats, because of their success in the 2006 elections, hold about two dozen of the seats that will be on next year's ballot.

Whether the incumbents are running or not, most of those seats currently appear likely to stay with whichever party now holds them.

There are some clear tossups emerging — Democrat–held seats in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Virginia — and winning four or all five would give control of the Senate to the GOP.

But, barring a tsunami–like event between now and November 2012, it has been hard to see the Republicans running the table or coming that close to it — not impossible but hard.

Until recently.

Last Friday, Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl, reliably liberal, a dependable vote for his party and an apparent cinch to win a fifth term if he sought one, announced that he would not run for re–election — and that, I believe, could change things for Barack Obama.

Things were already getting interesting in Wisconsin this spring, but I felt that, ultimately, Obama would get through it, thanks to Kohl. And why shouldn't he? The state has voted for Democratic presidential nominees in six straight elections — although it has sometimes been by a paper–thin margin. Obama's supporters had every reason to expect the state would remain in the Democrats' column.

Before Kohl's announcement, I was inclined to predict that Wisconsin would vote to re–elect Obama next year. He won there by a wide margin in 2008 — wider than anyone in more than 40 years — but I'm not so sure about a post–Kohl environment.

The Rothenberg Political Report isn't ready to declare the seat a tossup yet — but, with Kohl's announcement, it did move the race from "Safe Democrat" to "Leans Democrat" — a progression that several Democrat–held seats went through en route to defeat in the 2010 cycle.

With the popular Kohl on the ballot, Obama had a proven Democratic–voter magnet on the ballot with him. Kohl was first elected to the Senate in 1988 and was never seriously challenged after that. Without him on the ballot, there may be a free–for–all in the party primary and, possibly, the general election.

The idea may seem absurd to young political observers, who may be aware of the fact that Wisconsin has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since before Kohl was elected to the Senate — but neither had it sent a Republican to the Senate in that time until Ron Johnson defeated Russ Feingold last November.

If anything could stand between Wisconsin Republicans and victory in next year's Senate race, it might be the absence of a heavyweight name. House Budget chairman Paul Ryan might have been that name — but he announced today that he would not enter the race.

Speculation now appears to be centering on former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Even if the Wisconsin Republicans have to settle for less than a heavyweight nominee, I still expect a lot of money to be spent in what might otherwise have been a rather pedestrian affair — if the 76–year–old Kohl had sought another term.

Even though Obama and the Democrats must have expected to spend some money on campaign advertising in Wisconsin next year, they are likely now to be forced to spend even more. They will need to do whatever they can to prop up the Democrats' Senate nominee — whoever he or she may be — because they won't have Kohl to attract Democrats.

Speaking of heavyweights, Feingold (who went from 55% support in 2004 to 47% support in 2010) has been mentioned as a possible candidate as well, but he hasn't announced his intentions yet.

Whatever his plans may have been for 2012, Feingold may now have to re–evaluate the situation. Open seats have a way of changing things — especially when the electorate is as volatile and polarized as this one.

There's going to be plenty to watch in Wisconsin next year.

No comments: