Minnesota and Wisconsin are similar states with small political differences that are exaggerated by the effects of one-party rule, say two close observers of political culture.
"We're in the same region," said Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We share a border. There's a lot of common history and ancestry and culture."
He added that Minnesota and Wisconsin are "two states that really stand out in the country for the level of political participation. Minnesota is always No. 1 and Wisconsin is always No. 2 in presidential turnout. And also if you just look at the presidential voting history — it's harder to compare voting for governor because you're voting for different people, but in terms of a common candidate in presidential races, Wisconsin and Minnesota are very similar. There's not a lot to separate them."
And yet the policy differences between the governments of the two states are huge. The Democrats in charge in Minnesota have raised taxes on the wealthy, legalized same-sex marriage, voted to let child care workers unionize and led the way in establishing a state health care exchange. In contrast, the Republicans running Wisconsin have lowered taxes, curbed collective bargaining rights for many state workers and chosen not to set up a state health care exchange. And, with the help of Wisconsin voters, they succeeded in passing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said the differences are "almost a microcosm of what's going on in America."
"We've got two states that have been voting pretty similarly in terms of presidential elections," he said, "but the small differences that have developed in the state are getting accentuated because the ruling groups in each state, within each party, have become much more homogenous, with the Republican Party moving in a pretty conservative direction, the Democratic Party moving a bit more in the liberal direction.
"When they get in power, there's no doubt where they're moving."
Jacobs said the parties used to feel a need to reach out to their own moderates. "The swing votes with each party are still there," he said, "but they're fading in number and losing a lot of the power they used to have. The bottom line here is: Once you're in power, it's about responding to the base of your party and the base of your supporters, rather than general public opinion. That's what we're seeing in Washington, and I think we're seeing it in some other states where increasingly we're seeing this kind of one-party rule."
Gilbert agreed. "We just saw this in Washington last night," he said. "The House of Representatives voted on an abortion bill in which there was almost no dissent within either party. It was almost a unanimous party-line vote, with Republicans voting for abortion restrictions, and almost all Democrats voting against them. You never would have seen that 20 years ago. And we see the same thing at the state level, particularly on social issues, where you see party-line votes commonly on issues where you had a lot of dissent within the parties 20 years ago."
Voters in both states lean to the left; both went for President Barack Obama in the last election. Yet when Democrats forced a recall election against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last year, he became the first governor in U.S. history to survive one.
Both Walker and his Minnesota counterpart, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, are running for reelection. Some observers think Walker is also running for president, but he discounts the idea.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WISCONSIN AND MINNESOTA:
In the economic game, Minnesota is pulling away from Wisconsin
For awhile, it really sounded like Wisconsin was eating our lunch. ... (But) Wisconsin talks a better game than it plays when it comes to economic success. The facts show Minnesota performed better than the Badger State in keeping people employed during the Great Recession and adding jobs in the recovery. This spring, though, there's been mounting evidence that, economically, Wisconsin's not even in the game. (Paul Tosto, MPR News)
• Wisconsin's Walker Downplays Presidential Buzz
The governor is writing a book. He was the keynote speaker recently at an Iowa fundraiser. And he's kept up an aggressive out-of-state speaking and fundraising schedule. Walker also the list of Republican presidential contenders put together by Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Conservatives love the fact that he beat the unions and he beat the media," Sabato says. "That's the way they look at that recall election. He also managed to win what has become a blue state in most elections, certainly presidential elections." (NPR)
• Red State v. Blue in Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry
"You mean Mars and Venus?" cracked Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College. "In both states, the political parties are very ideological, the Democrats emphatically liberal and the Republicans emphatically conservative. ... The idea of Tweedledee and Tweedledum parties is long gone."(Star Tribune)
• Redistricting key to Wisconsin's red policies, Minnesota's blue path
As [Craig] Gilbert points out, Minnesota and Wisconsin both elected Democratic U.S. senators last fall. Voters in both states gave Obama nearly the same share of votes, 52.8 percent in Wisconsin and 52.7 percent in Minnesota. And in both states, Democrats won more legislative votes statewide than Republicans did. (The Cap Times)