Time to list winners, losers in Wisconsin politics in 2012
“Winners” envelopes, please.
Republicans: Paul Ryan and Scott Walker.
Ryan, Wisconsin’s 1st District congressman, moved from major Washington inside-the-Beltway player to the GOP’s first team this year by running for vice president. He often was Gov. Mitt Romney’s designated hitter, and he hit for extra bases more often than he struck out.
No, he didn’t run a marathon in less than three hours. But Ryan did so well in the veepstakes largely because the last Republican Party vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, set the bar so low.
Having connected with Republicans across the nation, Ryan now faces the huge decision of whether to lay the groundwork to run for president in 2016. But he starts 2013 on the A-list with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Ryan’s first challenge, however, is deciding what role he will play or not play when—or if—President Obama and Washington’s GOP leaders avoid or go over Tuesday’s “fiscal cliff.”
On June 5, Walker survived the first gubernatorial recall vote in Wisconsin history, partly because his GOP base voters agreed with his 2011 moves to make public employees pay more for health care and pensions and all but end collective bargaining by public employees, except for firefighters and police officers.
But Walker also survived because thousands of voters simply didn’t think a governor should be recalled only 18 months after starting the job. With polls consistently estimating Walker’s popularity at 52 percent, his New Year’s wish may be avoiding any repeat of the political firestorms of 2011. He’s up for re-election in November 2014.
Winning Democrats: Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin, State Sen. Chris Larson
Baldwin, the 2nd District congresswoman from Madison, took an up-or-out risk that paid off and will be sworn in as a U.S. senator in January, replacing fellow Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. It was the best 50th birthday present she could get.
As the highest-ranking Democratic officeholder, Baldwin is now leader of the state’s Democratic Party. With a Democratic president, Baldwin’s approval will be sought for anyone in Wisconsin to be named a federal judge, federal prosecutor or senior party official.
Within two years of becoming a state senator, the 32-year-old Larson of Milwaukee was elected Senate minority leader. His new-to-Madison energy helped him win the job, but he must also figure out how to unite the fractured 15 Senate Democrats.
Six political leaders lost campaigns for higher office this year, including some who had run so often they seem to have ended their political careers.
Envelopes in the “end of the line” category, please.
Four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who lost to Baldwin on Nov. 6 after winning a bruising four-way primary, promised to not seek office again in his concession speech. But the 71-year-old only stated the obvious, given the 14 years between his last run for governor and his Senate campaign.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the beloved Hubert Humphrey of Wisconsin Democrats, lost his third bid for governor when Walker survived the recall. After a career as a state legislator and U.S. House member, Barrett will be settling for a mayor-for-life legacy.
Republican Mark Neumann ran for governor as a party “outsider” in 2010, but then two years later asked party loyalists to let him be the party’s U.S. Senate nominee against Baldwin. The former 1st District House member lost to Thompson, which added to Neumann’s string of statewide losses that began with his 1998 loss to then-Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Democrat Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive, also lost a repeat bid for statewide office as a Democrat in 2012. She ran against Walker in the recall but lost to Barrett in the primary. Falk ran for governor in 2002 and for attorney general in 2006.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald came in fourth—and last—in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, despite saying he pushed Walker’s agenda through in 2011. Fitzgerald then disappeared from public life.
Secretary of State Doug La Follette also ran for governor but lost in the pre-recall Democratic primary. La Follette is proof that Wisconsin voters have a genetic need to keep someone with a famous name in office.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.