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Protesters in February take part in a Solidarity Sing-Along, a daily protest at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., after Republican Governor Scott Walker declared war on public sector unions. (Michael P. King/Associated Press)
Protesters in February take part in a Solidarity Sing-Along, a daily protest at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., after Republican Governor Scott Walker declared war on public sector unions. (Michael P. King/Associated Press)

American Postcard

In Wisconsin, a land of bitterly polarized politics, neither side is tiring of the fight Add to ...

A tenuous calm has descended on the Wisconsin State Capitol. But the silence is anything but peaceful.

“There is something evil lurking in there,” warns Daina Zemliauskas, pointing to the capitol building where she works. “I’ve never sensed this hate between people as much as I have in the past year and a half. And it’s simply because of their political views.”

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Since Governor Scott Walker came to office in early 2011, Wisconsin has been the country’s main, and much bloodied, battlefield in the Republican war on public-sector unions. With a GOP majority in the legislature, Mr. Walker stripped public employees of most collective bargaining rights, becoming a Tea Party hero in the process.

For weeks, state employees and their sympathizers occupied the capitol building, while Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to prevent a vote on Mr. Walker’s “budget repair” bill. But the unions ultimately lost that battle. And their hopes for revenge were crushed when Mr. Walker survived a statewide recall election in June.

In Dane County, which encompasses Madison, 69 per cent voted against the Governor. With its population of state employees and University of Wisconsin students, the city has long been a bastion of liberal politics and Madison is now the centre of anti-Walker resistance.

The bitterness of the past two years has spilled over into the presidential and Senate races. Democrats had been confident of keeping Wisconsin in President Barack Obama’s column and making Madison congresswoman Tammy Baldwin the first openly gay candidate to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. But since Mitt Romney picked Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, Wisconsin has become a toss-up between the presidential candidates and Ms. Baldwin finds herself in a tight race against ex-Republican governor Tommy Thompson.

The Senate race, better known as “Tammy versus Tommy,” is in part a rematch between the pro- and anti-Walker forces that have made Wisconsin politics among the country’s ugliest and most polarized. Astonishingly, neither side appears to be tiring of the fight.

Ms. Baldwin, 50, ranks among the six most liberal members of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Tammy’s so liberal Nancy Pelosi has to turn to the left to talk to her,” Mr. Thompson is fond of saying, comparing his rival to the Democratic minority leader.

Mr. Thompson, 70, spent four terms as governor and won bipartisan kudos for his welfare and health-care reforms. But after stepping down as George W. Bush’s health secretary, and briefly running for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, he worked as a lobbyist in Washington. Once considered a pragmatist, he now lines up with the GOP’s right flank on most issues. Mr. Thompson’s son was recently caught on camera saying Republicans have “an opportunity to send President Obama back to Chicago – or Kenya.”

Here in the so-called people’s republic of Madison, a siege mentality has set in.

“Tommy’s become this crazy Tea Party guy,” laments Ms. Zemliauskas, 54, a tour guide at the capitol. “What happened to the Republican Party?”

Retired state employee Charles Ricksecker, 64, is asking the same question. He voted for Mr. Thompson as governor but now plans to vote Democratic “right down the ticket.”

“I believe Tommy’s out of touch with voters now,” Mr. Ricksecker offers. “Tommy’s an insider and lobbyist. So, he’s pretty much just looking out for himself.”

In Madison, Ms. Baldwin’s sexual orientation is a non-issue. Dane County voted 76 per cent against a 2006 amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. But the amendment passed with the support of 59 per cent of voters statewide.

“The people who have issues with that stuff, they’re dying,” insists Baldwin supporter Tammie Murray. “And I think it’s going to be easier for a gay man or gay woman to be elected statewide than an atheist.”

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Madison, Wis.

Population: 236, 901 (city); 568,593 (metro)

Demographics: White 75.7 per cent, Asian 7.4 per cent, Black 7.3 per cent, Hispanic 6.8 per cent

Education: 52.2 per cent of Madison residents over 25 have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 27.9 per cent nationally

Median household income: $52, 500 (U.S.); $51,900 nationally

Poverty rate: 17.9 per cent; 13.8 per cent nationally

Trivia: The satirical newspaper The Onion was started in Madison in 1988 by University of Wisconsin students Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson. On Friday, the paper endorsed disgraced former Democratic senator John Edwards for president.

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