For the last half-century, retiree Georgi Anderson consistently voted for Democrats in Wisconsin. It was a party, she says, that "stood for something better. They were on the side of the working man."
Not anymore. Anderson plans to vote Republican down the line Nov. 2, snubbing a Democratic Party she says has changed for the worse. If polls are right, Anderson is part of a cresting wave that could turn Wisconsin bright red just two years after a Democratic landslide.
It's a different story next door in Minnesota, where Republicans are clawing to make gains in Congress in what is supposed to be a Republican year. And they're still struggling to close ranks around their party's nominee for governor. "We left the best horses in the barn," says a dispirited Dan Dorman, a southern Minnesota tire dealer and former GOP lawmaker considering staying home on Election Day. "I don't know what the heck I'm going to do."
This fall's electoral winds are gusting in different directions in these Upper Midwest states, a strange divergence for political cousins with a lot in common. They dependably back Democrats for the White House, share a fondness for populist candidates and regularly battle for the nation's top voter turnout.
Sensing opportunity in an otherwise hard-luck year for his party, President Barack Obama makes a late-campaign stop in Minnesota on Saturday where he'll headline a college campus rally for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Dayton. He rallied before 26,000 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last month.
In Wisconsin, Republicans are primed to knock off Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, grab one or more Democratic-held congressional seats and possibly flip the Legislature. And they are on course to retake the governor's mansion after eight years under retiring Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low.
In Minnesota, the main battle is over a seat Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty is giving up. Democrats seem well positioned to reverse a record of futility, after having lost the last five governor's elections.
The political split among the two states may come down to who was at the wheel when the economy turned south. Unemployment soared to 9.6 percent in Wisconsin last year at a time when Democrats ran everything; it flirted with 9 percent in Minnesota where Pawlenty was the lead face in a divided government.
But when the desire for change took hold in Wisconsin, it did so with a vengeance. Thousands of the disenchanted turned out for tea party rallies across the state supporting stridently conservative candidates. Many of those Republican candidates now lead heading into the election.
The tea party brewed in Minnesota, too, but hasn't really become a political force.
State Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican nominee for Minnesota governor, has tea party appeal but hasn't robed himself with the movement. Polls show Emmer trails in a bid to retain the Minnesota governor's seat for the GOP, the party's only existing lever of state power. And there's a distinct possibility Republicans could be shut out of statewide office altogether for the first time in 32 years.
Minnesota Republicans find themselves fractured over what to do about the state's budget _ whether to continue to aggressively cut costs at the expense of social programs and other priorities, or to return to the moderate approach once favored by the party. Some prominent moderates are so embittered that they are refusing to back the party nominee in November.
Emmer, a tough-talking conservative, has promised to continue Pawlenty's signature no-new-tax approach, vowing to fix a nearly $6 billion deficit solely by curbing spending. Dayton, meanwhile, says he'd raise taxes on the wealthy.
The prominent Republicans choosing to support a third-party candidate, Tom Horner, a former GOP strategist, and spurn Emmer include former Govs. Arne Carlson and Al Quie, former Sen. David Durenberger and former state party Chairman Bill Morris. When a group of middle-of-the-road GOP legislators recently followed suit, state party Chairman Tony Sutton caused a stir by denouncing them as "quislings," a word linked to a Norwegian Nazi collaborator.
Morris said he worries that his party values purity over electability. "We've had eight years of the tea party under Pawlenty. What I mean is small government, no new taxes, the entire thrust of the tea party," Morris said. "We're about four years ahead of the crowd on this one and it's not resonating well."
Republican leaders have tried to boost Emmer by reminding voters that they're supposed to be lashing out at Democrats. Republicans are almost certain to gain ground in the Legislature, but Democrats are favored to keep control given large House and Senate majorities now.
In Wisconsin, the Republicans on the ballot are also much more conservative than those embraced by this state's voters in the past.
In the governor's race, Republican Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive, supports banning embryonic stem cell research and said he would sign a tough anti-immigration law similar to the one passed in Arizona. He has maintained a steady lead over Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, courting tea party support in the process. Both men have promised not to raise taxes to deal with a $2.7 billion budget deficit, but Walker's gone farther _ saying he would slash taxes and repeal hikes last year on the state's wealthiest people and biggest companies.
But the GOP is especially salivating over the prospect of knocking off liberal icon Feingold, who has played catchup lately. Businessman Ron Johnson, a political upstart who has spent millions of his own money attacking Feingold on federal spending and labeled him as a "career politician," has connected with independent voters who went to Feingold in the past.
That includes Lee Mikell, a 36-year-old prison supervisor from Racine who says he feels let down by Feingold and Democrats. "I don't like being in a guild with Republicans, but I'm going to give him the opportunity," Mikell said. "Who else do we have?"
Associated Press Writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this story from Racine, Wis.