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What’s Going on in America’s Dairyland?

By Sam Richter '20, Staff Writer

· Samuel Richter

Unless you live in Wisconsin – or hail from a neighboring state like I do – you probably have not paid much attention to the state’s politics over the past year-and-a-half. However, since the election of Donald Trump, strange things have happened in the state. Though interesting in their own right, these political events could signal potential shifts in American politics, and for this reason deserve exploration.

Before examining these events, however, the political character of the state must first be understood. Katherine J. Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains in her book, The Politics of Resentment, that the Wisconsin electorate is basically split into two large groups: the rural, blue-collar voters of the northern and central portions of the state, and the urban, white-collar voters of the southern portion. Cramer explains that the rural voters display, in her interviews with them, a resentment towards their urban compatriots, believing that the state and federal governments unfairly favor urban areas while disregarding the problems of rural America. This resentment towards urban areas manifests itself as a rejection of “big government”. As a result, the state’s rural population overwhelmingly votes Republican, and the urban population in turn votes Democratic. A quick glance at the 2016 election map displays this polarization: the large expanse of rural counties, with the exceptions of the union-heavy counties along the coast of Lake Superior, voted red while the urban ones, excluding the affluent counties just outside of Milwaukee, voted blue. Altogether, Trump won the state by less than one percent of the vote.

Like Wisconsin, America votes along a rural-urban divide, with the urban, coastal states usually voting Democratic and the rural hinterland voting Republican. The nation’s electorate, also like Wisconsin, is split roughly fifty-fifty between the two major parties. The election of Trump, like that of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, was successful largely because it tapped into a segment of the populace that felt forgotten or mistreated by the government. These parallels suggest that the politics of Wisconsin can serve as an imperfect representative for the United States as a whole. The recent political activities of the state, therefore, may offer insights into how American politics will operate moving forward.

The election of Donald Trump, a reality television star without any political experience, has seemingly opened up the door for anybody to run for public office. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wisconsin. Upon introducing himself to the internet with his moving campaign ad, Randy Bryce has earned the admiration of progressives nationwide.  Nicknamed the Iron Stache, Bryce is a union ironworker challenging Paul Ryan for the seat of Wisconsin’s 1st district. Though winning an election against the incumbent Speaker of the House is no small feat, Bryce’s campaign last December claimed that their polls had Bryce trailing by only six percentage points. The Bryce campaign has seemingly tapped into Wisconsin’s anti-establishment resentment, so much so that even Rasmussen Reports, a conservative polling firm, downgraded Ryan’s campaign from “safe” to “likely” (although Ryan’s noncommittal to running for reelection also factored into this decision).

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin’s 7th district, Bon Iver’s band manager Kyle Frenette hopes to win the Democratic party’s August primary election to face off against incumbent (and adamant Trump supporter) Sean Duffy. Frenette and Bryce demonstrate that Trump may have opened the floodgates for non-traditional candidates to run for Congress, and, given the current wave of anti-establishment sentiment in the electorate, they may achieve moderate success (especially in a state known for its atypical politicians, from Milwaukee’s love for socialist mayors to Senator Joseph McCarthy). In any case, Bryce and Frenette may serve as examples of a shift in American politics that places a premium on political outsiders.

Last week, Wisconsin elected its newest state supreme court justice, Rebecca Dallet. The progressive Dallet resoundingly beat her conservative opponent by twelve percentage points. While journalists have been quick to point out that this election will not necessarily translate into midterm success for Democrats, progressives across the country have added this to a list of special elections that seem to suggest a potential Democratic landslide in November. These optimists were not alone in drawing conclusions from this race; Governor Walker, troubled by the results, took to Twitter to warn his followers about a potential Blue Wave in Wisconsin (ironically, this warning included a complaint about donations coming from outside the state, which Walker utilized extensively to win his 2012 recall election). Because Dallet won several counties Trump carried in the 2016 election, this election may signal a turn away from Trump and, as a consequence, a turn towards the Democratic party. If this is true, the electoral implications would be huge, not only for the midterm elections, but in the 2020 presidential election as well, considering Wisconsin’s status as a swing state.

Despite sometimes being overlooked, Wisconsin is highly consequential to national politics. In a state highly polarized along a rural-urban divide, Trump was able to capitalize on an anti-establishment sentiment to win the state by less than one percent of the vote. This anti-establishment sentiment is seemingly still present in the state, as it has encouraged two political outsiders, Randy Bryce and Kyle Frenette, to run for congressional seats. Nevertheless, this sentiment no longer works in Trump’s favor; counties that previously elected Trump had no problems voting for the progressive Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet. Assuming Wisconsin can be used as a serviceable representative for the entire country, this all suggests that the United States is on the verge of experiencing a wave of populism and progressivism in November.   

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