Badger State Brawl
The presidential primaries roll into Wisconsin.

Rick Santorum campaigns in Green Bay, Wis., March 24, 2012.


Christian Schneider

Over the past year, Wisconsin has produced more than its share of Republican heroes. Governor Scott Walker faced down public-employee unions, and faces a well-funded recall attempt as a result. Newly minted U.S. senator Ron Johnson has been a leading voice against excessive debt and the dangers of Obamacare. Conservative Wisconsinites want Representative Paul Ryan elected president of the world — and if another planet is discovered with life on it, they would elect him president of that one, too.

It stands to reason, then, that the Republican presidential primary to be held on April 3 is a mere undercard to all the other action in the state — most notably the Walker recall on June 5. But even though the presidential race may not be on the tip of every cheesehead’s tongue, the state GOP will grant someone its 42 delegates next Tuesday. And come November, it will be one of the handful of states that determines who will be filling out the official presidential March Madness bracket next year.

As noted by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel election guru Craig Gilbert, this is the first time in 32 years Wisconsin will have the chance to make a difference in a competitive GOP primary. And according to a poll released yesterday by Marquette University, Wisconsin primary voters are likely to help Mitt Romney edge closer to the nomination: Among them, Romney leads Rick Santorum 39 percent to 31 percent.

Romney’s lead in Wisconsin is a new development. Between February and March, Romney’s support grew from 18 percent to 39 percent, while Santorum’s has dropped slightly, from 34 percent to 31 percent. Perhaps this is due to the $2 million Romney and his allies have used to blanket the state’s airwaves with anti-Santorum messages (Santorum has spent less than $100,000). It could also be that the state’s voters have bought into the narrative of Romney’s inevitability, or that they are unconcerned about his famous ideological flexibility. (When the poll asked Republicans what was the most important quality they were seeking in a nominee, only 18 percent answered “is a true conservative”; 30 percent answered “has strong moral character,” and 26 percent answered “has the right experience to be president.”)

But to understand the presidential primary in Wisconsin without incorporating the recall election’s politics is like buying unscented perfume. The two are linked — and may offer a clue as to why Romney is surging.

Romney was the first candidate to publicly support Scott Walker, which is a prerequisite to being taken seriously as a Republican in Wisconsin. In a radio appearance last Wednesday, Romney said of Walker:

I support him and support his efforts. . . . I have no reason to be critical of any of the steps or the process that he has pursued because I’m frankly not there and in his position. So I can only tell you that I think his effort to try and rein in the excesses and to try to give the state a more solid financial footing makes a great deal of sense and I support him.

On Tuesday night, Santorum jumped into the Walker sweepstakes, telling a local television reporter that he will be having announcements over the next few days as to how he will be helping Walker’s recall-election effort. Santorum had to do something to stop the bleeding, as Romney is blanketing the state with robocalls accusing him of being soft on labor. “As if we didn’t have enough to worry about,” a pleasant young woman says in one recorded call, “I learned that Rick Santorum repeatedly supported Big Labor and joined with liberal Democrats in voting against collective-bargaining legislation during his time in Washington.”