Salena Zito

MOUNT HOREB, Wis. – At first, Jeff Millard was undecided about who to vote for in November.

“I am not particularly happy with Obama,” the retired auto-parts storeowner said of the man he supported in 2008.

His wife, walking beside him on the Military Ridge state trail, overheard him voicing doubt. She let him know it was not an option.

“What about my reproductive rights?” she asked, clearly upset. “No, we are voting for Obama!”

Discussing his uncertainty, the retired couple walked off along the popular recreational trail in this small town, once known for the National Mustard Museum and an obsession with all things related to trolls.

By all rights, President Obama should easily win this state, with its “progressive” activism and elected liberals such as former U.S. senator Russ Feingold.

Obama won the state within an inch of 14 percentage points in 2008.

Today, he leads Republican Mitt Romney in state polling. But, based on his Chicago campaign headquarters’ reaction to any questioning that support, his lead may be as solid as quicksand.

The Badger State illustrates the political divide gripping segments of America, thanks largely to the reaction of organized labor and Democrat activists to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining reform bill.

Since 2011, Wisconsin has endured an unprecedented rash of statewide elections, including recalls of GOP state senators, a February primary for local offices, an April presidential primary, a May gubernatorial-recall candidate primary among Democrats, and then June’s gubernatorial recall election.

Despite millions of dollars spent by Washington Democrats and unions, Walker and Republicans shocked pundits by prevailing in most of those contests.

On Saturday, Obama made his first appearance in 220 plus days in a state that may be politically spent: Less than 19 percent of its eligible voters showed up for an August primary to choose both parties’ U.S. Senate candidates.

An hour’s drive southeast of here, Janesville was put on the national radar by Tobin Ryan’s brother, Paul, the Republican congressman picked as Romney’s running mate.

Like many Midwesterners, Tobin and his family live a block from his brother and his family, and all of them within a stone’s throw of where they grew up.

Tobin is incredibly proud of his younger brother, who he calls “P.D.” He points to their father’s sudden death as the moment that defined his brother’s character:

“P.D. was 16 at the time and the only one home. Mom was driving back from a family visit in Colorado, our sister Janet and older brother Stan were away, and I was at breakfast with a former high-school teacher.

“Dad’s secretary had called looking for him. P.D. went down the hall to wake him up … Dad probably died during the night but that didn’t stop my brother from trying to resuscitate him.

“To me, that moment defined who he is … before, he was this happy-go-lucky kid that worked at McDonalds. From that point on, he persevered, focused, and 12 years later he was in Congress.”

Kathy Kopp of Platteville senses enormous pride among fellow Wisconsinites to have Ryan on the Republican ticket. “Whatever your political affiliation is, Ryan is very well respected by voters in this state,” she said.

Sitting inside a charming log cabin that is Platteville’s tourism center, Kopp and colleagues Debi Sigwarth and Joe Wand admit to being overwhelmed by political ads in the past two years.

Yet Wand hasn’t seen that dim enthusiasm for a native son on a presidential ticket: “Go down the street to the university and you will see plenty of young people with T-shirts that say ‘Like Obama, Voting Ryan.”

Wisconsin is well within reach for Romney-Ryan. Ryan’s House district, blue-collar and Democrat-leaning, is one that Obama must carry to win statewide; if Republicans run better-than-average there, they could exceed Walker’s recall numbers.

In a crowded elevator in downtown Chicago, Obama's hometown, Jason Buckle, 29, a Madison accountant in town for a conference, said the country needs Romney.

“But not just on the economy,” he explained. “The way the Mideast was handled last week was anything but presidential. In fact, it was dreadful, embarrassing.”

Republicans haven't won Wisconsin since 1984. That it is a GOP target this time tells you a lot.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.