It is the story of a mid-western state that has undergone a tumultuous conversion, from a laid back, progressive liberal vibe, to a virulent conservatism, writes Felicity Spector.
In many ways, the story of Wisconsin reflects what's happened to the Republican party: a story of radical change.
Wisconsin, of course, is home to Paul Ryan, the forty-something Gen-Xer who became the surprise pick as Mitt Romney's running mate. The state's governor, Scott Walker, plunged straight into a head-on battle with the unions, demolishing collective bargaining rights and slashing spending. Despite, or perhaps because of the resulting furore, Walker scored an overwhelming victory in a recall election called by his detractors.
Then there is Reince Priebus, former head of the Wisconsin Republican party who orchestrated the party's victory there in 2010 - and now chairs the GOP national committee.
He described the state's influence over the party as the "cheesehead revolution", and said activists were amazed about what was happening there. "They're looking to Wisconsin as a role model to recruit candidates and run a ground campaign that's second to none".
Indeed, although the state was an easy win for Barack Obama in 2008, with a 14 point lead over John McCain according to the latest polls, the Badger state, with its precious 10 electoral college votes, is now very much in play.
'Regular blue collar guy'
The Republicans' standing, of course, has been boosted by Paul Ryan's name on the ticket. The native Janesville boy has done a good job of presenting himself as a regular blue collar guy, despite his less than humble background with a family business which thrived on large state construction contracts.
He has been careful to play up his local roots, telling supporters in this dairy-loving state that his veins "run with cheese", and declaring himself a big fan of hunting and catfish noodling, adding that he's a dab hand with a chain saw.
Plus there's that summer job at McDonalds: "When I was washing dishes or waiting tables", goes one speech, "I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I thought to myself: I'm the American dream."
One heck of a way to overcome that six-term stint in the wildly unpopular House of Representatives. And one heck of a way to counterbalance the moneyed, patrician aura surrounding Mitt Romney. From blue blood, to blue collar, in one fell swoop.
The strategy in Wisconsin, as in the rest of the country, has been to focus on jobs. Part of the reason behind the state's swing to the right has been the slump in industrial fortunes: failed industries, struggling businesses, home foreclosures, and lay-offs.
And Ryan has tried to capture some of that disillusion, saying he's discovered something different in peoples voices: "What I hear from them are diminished dreams, lowered expectations, uncertain futures."
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Except Paul Ryan is not all about popularity: far from it. His name might well add some intellectual clout, and the kind of conservative vision that party activists were craving, but there is a high risk attached.
Ryan's radical budget plan, which he pioneered through the House, delighted the right wing with its emphasis on cutting taxes and turning Medicare into vouchers - not to mention outlawing abortion, with no exceptions. But none of those ideas poll well among regular voters, especially that precious handful who have yet to make up their minds.
Ryan has also voted against financial help for families facing the loss of their homes: against a child nutrition scheme providing subsidies for school lunches, against the 2009 economic stimulus which he denounced as a "wasteful spending spree". All of that could certainly backfire.
But Wisconsin has become something of a testing ground, a petridish for conservative ideas, if you like: millions of dollars are being poured into maintaining the grassroots campaign which turned out so effectively in the Walker re-call election in June.
It's certainly got the Obama campaign running to catch up. Until now, the president hadn't visited the Badger state since February, and according to CNN, hasn't run a single television ad there. Now, though, the Democrats are taking their economic-themed bus tour to Wisconsin, on its way through key battleground states, while party offiicals insist they "feel good" about their chances of winning.
Those who have worked in the state, and know Paul Ryan, have told me he has a lot more experience out on the stump than most Democrats probably know: he is a quick leaner who is willing to put in the neccessary work.
And more importantly he adds that all important passion-factor: the true conservative to inspire the grassroots who may never yet learn to love their leader. Ryan poses a risk, for sure. But if Wisconsin's changing political fortunes really are a model for the nation, he's a risk the Republicans are more than willing to take.
Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News.
23 August 2012
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