Had Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl’s current term concluded at a politically calmer moment in the state’s history and had the 76-year-old senior senator made his surprise decision to step down in that moment, the race to replace the popular Democrat would have followed the predictable patterns for which a generation of Wisconsin politicians has been preparing.
Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, would have been his party’s choice to replace Kohl.
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Madison, running from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and Congressman Ron Kind of La Crosse, running from the more Wall Street-friendly wing, would have competed with one another for their party’s nomination. Baldwin probably would have won, thanks to a decision to back her by unions that have long been frustrated with Kind’s support for corporate-sponsored free-trade deals.
The ensuing November contest would have been an epic partisan and ideological struggle, featuring all the big-money, outside spending and political positioning that characterizes the nation’s most important Senate races.
But this is not a politically calm moment in Wisconsin history.
That does not mean that the race to replace Kohl, who announced Friday that he will step down next year at the end of his fourth term, won’t be an epic partisan and ideological struggle. Nor does it mean that anyone should count Ryan, Baldwin or Kind out of the competition.
It does, however, mean that there will be more to this competition than might otherwise have been expected.
1. Former Senator Russ Feingold, an iconic figure among left-leaning Wisconsinites and a traditionally popular contender among independent voters, was swept out of office in the 2010 Republican wave. That was a tough loss for Feingold, who was not ready to leave the Senate, and a tougher one for his backers, who see him as the embodiment of the state’s progressive tradition.
From the moment his defeat was confirmed last November, Feingold backers in Wisconsin -– and far beyond the state’s borders -– were looking for a way to return the opponent of corporate excess, the Patriot Act and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to office. Almost every conversation about Feingold began with the phrase: “If Herb Kohl doesn’t run…” Now, he’s not running and Feingold must make a definitional decision, not just about his own political future but about Wisconsin’s political future.
2. Ryan was for more than a decade the "golden boy" of Wisconsin politics. Yes, he was a conservative ideologue. But he was, as well, a charming young man with exemplary political skills and, because of his willingness to carry Wall Street’s agenda as a key player on the House Budget Committee, had ready access to all the campaign money he was going to need to mount a serious Senate run.
Then, Ryan came up with a politically toxic proposal to radically restructure the nation’s popular Medicare program. Polls found that 80 percent of Americans opposed Ryan’s scheme, and the angry crowds the congressman encountered at April town meetings across southeast Wisconsin suggested that his “golden boy” image was tarnished.