With Kohl Out, Wisconsin Is Wide Open in 2012

With Kohl Out, Wisconsin Is Wide Open in 2012

By Patrick McIlheran - May 15, 2011

Wisconsin's senior senator just made Barack Obama's life more exciting.

Wisconsin will be the site of a scramble in 2012 for a U.S. Senate seat occupied for 24 years by one undefeated man, which is exciting enough. What's more, that man -- who on Friday declared he will not run again -- is Democrat Herb Kohl.

"Herb" is not a merely first name. It is a description. Kohl possesses the gift of being able to enliven a discussion by leaving it. Asked at his press conference for his greatest accomplishment in four Senate terms, he offered two minutes of eyelid-drooping details on his effort last year to bring a Navy contract to a shipyard in Marinette, Wis. "We got that done, and I'm very proud of that," he said, standing in front of an appropriately beige map. He did not get around to mentioning Giant Accomplishment No. 2, nor would his listeners' consciousness have been able to bear it.

Kohl's chief charm is that he owns the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and did not move them out of state. Kohl never said anything stupid, because he never said much of anything. He embarked on no polarizing crusades, alienated no one with some bold initiative -- because he had none. A reliable Democratic vote, Kohl routinely got top-notch ratings from liberal and union groups, but he never mentioned that in his ads. His signature move was to dispense four-ounce cups of flavored milk -- root beer, strawberry and so forth -- at the state fair. It was innocuously sweet, just like Herb himself.

Well, that's all over. The Cook Political Report now rates the seat, almost certainly Kohl's had he wanted to keep it, as a toss-up. Now President Obama and Democratic Party leaders must worry a little more about losing the Senate in Obama's second term.

Presuming he gets a second term. To win one, Obama probably needs Wisconsin. Just under his name on the ballot will not be a nice old gent who passes out sweetened milk but yet another of the broken-nose brawls that now characterize Wisconsin politics. Obama will want to re-create the above-politics pan-ideological magic of 2008, but his party in the Badger State will be offering voters an angrier, more distilled leftism than it has served up in years.

Consider the Democrats' options. The party's front-runner for Kohl's seat is the forcibly retired Sen. Russ Feingold, who's not doing much. He professes to be "not eager" to run, but his political base is. Liberals are convinced that Feingold's five-point loss to Ron Johnson in 2010 will, any minute now, be seen by voters as a horrid mistake. They seem to think Wisconsin wants, wishes, even longs to again elect the Senate's liberal outlier.

As for other Democrats -- either candidates or volunteers running the door-to-door walks -- they'll have been through two years of radicalization by 2012. The party's core, public-sector unions, went berserk when Gov. Scott Walker proposed limits on their bargaining power. When those limits passed, they repurposed a sleepy state Supreme Court race -- and lost by 7,100 votes. The recount, futilely, goes on, with litigation expected.

Simultaneously, Democrats campaigned to recall every Republican lawmaker they legally could. Six Republican state senators face in-or-out elections in July (as do three Democratic senators, since the tea party is far from over). In summer, when Wisconsinites usually care mainly about grilling kielbasa, the Democrats will be picking at the wound, keeping their base angry. They say they'll try the same with Walker, once he's eligible for recall. If they do, it sets up another unions vs. taxpayers special election next spring.

Obama was going to run in a Wisconsin where his side's leading local face was a senator who never offended anyone. He will instead run in a Wisconsin where the face of his party will be beet-red, occasionally mobbing the Capitol by the tens of thousands, and shouting for higher taxes -- over and over, in a campaign season that drags on for two sleepless years.

Who knows: Maybe Obama will win. His team is certainly pumped. But he'll find it far more complicated this time, now that Sen. Beige is checking out.

Patrick McIlheran is a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial columnist who blogs at E-mail

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