Speaking to a crowd in Racine County in June, Rep. Paul Ryan fired up some 1,000 Tea Party supporters in a vast green field.
“On Tuesday, we save Wisconsin,” the Janesville congressman said. “On November 6th, Wisconsin saves America.”
Ryan was campaigning against the recall of Governor Scott Walker in office. He couldn’t have known then he would be chosen to run alongside Mitt Romney, but his words have special resonance now: his selection caps off a huge year for Wisconsin Republicans, and signals an increasing confidence that they’ll be competitive in a state Democrats won by 14 points in 2008. Wisconsin has emerged both as a seat of Republican power — the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, is also from the state — and a placid Midwestern state transformed into constant political battleground, with competitive Senate and House races interlacing with the presidential campaign. Wisconsin is having a Republican moment, largely due to the election of Walker and his moves to neuter public sector labor unions, which made him a national star.
“It’s been a big few months,” said a Wisconsin Republican operative. “Because there was a kind of recall hangover, it’s been like pulling teeth to get any press to cover the presidential race. Now it’s going to be in the full spotlight.”
“One thing to keep in mind – we’ve been campaigning for more than two years and we’ve been winning,” the operative said. “We have the largest ground operation we’ve ever had in the state of Wisconsin.”
An oft-quoted Public Policy Polling poll from last month showed that with Ryan on the ticket, President Obama’s lead in Wisconsin drops to one point. Democrats dismiss that polling as overblown.
An Obama campaign source noted that in the wake of the recall, poll numbers for Romney himself didn’t go up. “If Romney believed that he could win Wisconsin, he would have been up on the air there and he never has been,” the source said.
And some Wisconsin Democrats simply don’t think Ryan is very popular in their home state.
“His voting residence is in Janesville but he’s been D.C. incarnate for the last 20 years,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a progressive group that had a large role in the recall fight. “His disconnection to Wisconsin is geographic as well as ideological.”
The Ryan choice is the latest coup for a state party that demolished an effort to take out the Republican governor and looks competitive in the race for retiring Senator Herb Kohl’s Senate seat.
And more largely, Wisconsin itself has become a crossroads for many of the battles that now define American political life, especially in the Midwest. A deep polarization of the electorate, marked by conflict over budgets and spending and the same economic woes that trouble other Midwestern states, is exactly the environment from which someone as polarizing as Ryan can emerge and thrive.
Though his ideas are as infuriating to the other side as they are enthralling to his allies. Graeme Zielinski, the spokesman for the Wisconsin Democrats, tweeted last night:
Conservatives, meanwhile, celebrate. Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes, perhaps the loudest voice in support of Walker during the recall, echoed Ryan’s words from June: