Six months ago, Wisconsin's presidential primary April 5 was to be a ho-hum affair, ignored in the national coverage. Now it is shaping up a line in the sand for the forces of Bernie Sanders on one side and the stop Trump movement on the other.
The March 22 primaries went much as expected - Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton won the biggest prize, Arizona, while Cruz and Sanders picked up delegates in caucus states Utah and (only for Democrats) Idaho.
Sanders' forces need a big win in an open primary state. So they are pulling out all stops in Wisconsin, a border state to Michigan, where Bernie's upset victory breathed new life into his campaign.
Over at the GOP with Donald Trump nearly halfway home in delegates, full blown panic has infected institutional Republicans. Big money, big ad buys and big name anti-endorsements haven't stopped Trump.
Their traditional voter base is clearly stirred up, though no one except Trump has insidiously suggested street riots. But there is a gathering sensibility of voters taking matters into their own hands to halt the Trump baggage car. The Wisconsin polls are being viewed as a watershed moment.
The Republican establishment is hurting itself by sending mixed messages -- give in to Trump at one moment, resist at another. Conservatives who want to rally around Sen. Ted Cruz as the main viable alternative also realize he remains the second most disliked candidate on the Republican side. Even popular House Speaker Paul Ryan of District 1 hasn't expressed a preference - just a constant sense of disgust and Trump avoidance, which puts him clearly in the stop Trump camp. Yet he has resisted supporting Cruz or John Kasich, the Ohio governor.
The Trump people still anticipate a "huuuge" showing in the state where Trump so demeaned Gov. Scott Walker that he abandoned his presidential bid last September and publicly called for other GOP candidates to follow suit if they wanted to beat Trump.. It took them months to listen, during which Walker's grip on state politics seems to be fading almost as fast as the state' economy is. He did not leave the race as a Trump fan - but then again, neither did Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Bobby Jindal, who are all now supporting Trump as the inevitable nominee. Walker instead says he's torn between Cruz and Kasich.
That exhausts the remaining choices -- one establishment Republican in the form of Kasich and the second scariest guy in the GOP field, Cruz, who first sold himself as the maverick messiah conservative outsider and now is calling himself the sober conservative establishment insider. No wonder people think politics are weird.
Trump is finding Wisconsin a curiously difficult place to gain traction. In the past it had a reputation for strong evangelical roots and flirtation with George Wallace and other anti-establishment populist movements. But the traditional GOP voters who have been the party bulwark in spring elections express to journalists a tremendous dislike for Trump. Only in northern and western pockets can you find a few blocks of favorable comment, but the sort of blocks that can be chipped away by peer pressure.
A Washington Post piece speculated that if the Trump-Clinton contest emerges as inevitable, it will be decided in the Rust Belt, where Trump's support stems strongly from disenfranchised lower income, lower educated voters who believe Trump is smart (look at his money!) and feel abandoned by the country and both parties. Maybe a businessman can change things, they think. These are the folks who still envision a black and white world of good guys and bad guys in which Trump and the Worldwide Wresting Federation dominate.
Well, Wisconsin typifies the Rust Belt, but is poised to defy the expected. GOP analysts note that Trump leads national unfavorable ratings. In Wisconsin the overall negative view is minus 64 percent overall - and minus 39 percent among self-identified GOP voters.
Rank and file Republicans simply can't believe how party leaders who once spoke in absolute opposition to Trump have bent to his gibberish. While violence on either side is detestable, it's clear that Trump has stirred up such forces - and now faces a backlash. Wisconsin people, clearly distressed at the mental gymnastics of their leaders and skeptical of Cruz, regard the state as too special a place to become yet another scalp on Trump's hair brush.
Is Wisconsin quietly becoming Kasich country? Few talked to here buy the argument made elsewhere that a vote for Kasich is a vote for Trump. They say anything can happen at an open convention. In this state it's Kasich who sounds like a fellow no-nonsense Midwestern - not as absolutist and incalcitrant as Cruz. So predictions are moving from a Cruz-Trump battle at the top to Kasich and Cruz dropping Trump to third place. That would send quite a tom-tom to the GOP convention.
On the Democratic side, Hillary has always had a strong traditional following (even in 2008 when Obama won the primary she picked up 32 out of 76 delegates). But the state also has an outsized coterie of colleges and universities, many quite politically active, the groups that Sanders does well with. Millenials are ferociously angry at Walker's gouging of higher education as well as the national economic system that Sanders pounds about. Many consider themselves a vanguard of a revolution in politics, the spokespeople for an emerging generation. If they can't win this year with Sanders, they are determined to be heard. That's why Sanders is likely to win the April 5 primary despite the pro-Hillary elements.
Down the ballot in an otherwise "nonpartisan" election, the Democrats have more incentive to vote April 5. The only statewide race is almost a stand-in for anger at Walker. Rebecca Bradley, who is running for a full 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, was appointed there just before the election - the third court he has given her by nomination. She has been stung even among Republicans by revelations of what she wrote some 22 years ago in college (overlapping Walker by one year at Marquette University) harshly condemning homosexuals, AIDs and the stupid voters who put Bill Clinton in office. That's why those piling in to vote for either Clinton or Sanders are likely to vote for Bradley's opponent, Judge JoAnne Kloppenurg.
So here is the irony. The April 5 primary may be more important on the GOP side but the most coverage and highest voter interest occurs on the Democratic side.
The people are beginning to take matters into their own hands. That's an emotional response difficult for politicians to channel. But if it is channeled through the polls, this could be a new ballgame.
Photo: Scott Walker. | AP