Notes on a Wisconsin Political Season

Notes on a Wisconsin Political Season

The Wisconsin primary was a moment for all candidates concerned. It delivered a jolt to brash Donald Trump, who lost to smarmy Ted Cruz.

The beautiful heartland state is a nice metaphor for a deeply divided America. It shows us starkly what New York, Washington and California chatter about coast to coast. Yes, there’s anger “out there.” There will be more before the sun goes down on Nov. 8 — and after.

Cruz, the Republican winner, is second to none in the Senate in his hard right tea party-inspired actions, even trying to force a government shutdown against the wishes of party elders.

The Republican party is standing in quicksand, forced to face that Cruz is hated only slightly less than Trump in “establishment” party circles. A freshman senator, Cruz was apt to alienate others in a chamber that prizes courtesy and deference to “senior” senators.

Trump, the brash New York mogul, had a fatal flaw as far as Wisconsin is concerned: He’s too “stuck-up” in a land of dry understatement and egalitarian values. Bragging is bad form. I know the natives. I used to live among them. I even heard a woman say that John F. Kennedy was too “stuck-up,” though he managed to win the 1960 Wisconsin primary a long time ago. It was decisive for Kennedy, proving that being Catholic could be overcome at the ballot box.

The winner of the Democratic primary, Senator Bernie Sanders, 74, is the farthest left on the spectrum out of 100 senators. He dealt a blow to front-runner Hillary Clinton by extending a string of victories. For her, it was unsettling, throwing New York, their shared state, in play.

Something is clearly going on, not just in Wisconsin: The 2016 wind of history is pressing people toward extreme points of view. As the birthplace of the Republican Party, Wisconsin is always in the political game when the stakes are high.

Swaggering, lone star Texas and green pristine Vermont, the states Cruz and Sanders represent, are like the sun and the moon. What do these senators say to each other on the elevator? I have no idea.

But I do know that Wisconsin has a talent for political schizophrenia. This is the place that produced Senator Joseph McCarthy, the diabolical Communist-baiter at the height of the Cold War. A shame to its name.

On the other hand, Wisconsin was home to the Progressive Party a century ago, which became a beacon to Theodore Roosevelt and others. Senator Bob LaFollette, a Progressive, is considered one of the greatest in history by John F. Kennedy and others.

How does one state hold such opposite poles in its hands? Governor Scott Walker who dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination and endorsed Cruz, is part of the ongoing contradiction in Wisconsin politics. He has waged war on two institutions dear to the state: 1) The grand University of Wisconsin, a pride and joy for those who still believe in a state for the people; 2) Collective bargaining with public unions, a Wisconsin tradition, is also something Walker has sought to abolish. He survived an extraordinary recall effort.

So, you see, a state that is usually “blue” in presidential elections years is under red rule right now. It’s not like the days of old Gov. Tommy Thompson, a jovial moderate Republican. The liberal enclave of Madison half-hoped Walker would get to the White House.

Madison is where I lived as a child, where I learned to ice skate and swim — on blue Lake Mendota, hugging Picnic Point and the university terrace. The village ski jump I’d climb one day when I got older. I could walk to my grandmother’s house and have her ginger cookies (baked with a bit of bacon fat) after school. There were trees to climb and raspberries by the fistful in my grandfather’s garden patch.

I was 8 when we left Madison. It seems it’s not quite like that anymore.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit


Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at a campaign event at Lakeside Plastics in Oshkosh, Wisconsin March 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich


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