MADISON — Janet Bewley was elected to the Wisconsin state Assembly in November 2010, representing a district along the shores of Lake Superior in the northernmost reaches of the state. A Democrat, she was a newcomer to politics. She knew only a little about the legislative process and came to Madison with both big hopes and some trepidation.

Bewley was eager to learn as quickly as she could about how to become an effective legislator. Instead, in the early weeks of 2011, she found herself caught up in the disorienting turbulence of mass protests and a bitter standoff inside the legislature. “I got thrown into the deep end of the pool,” she said, “and then the pool caught fire.”

Bewley was elected in the year of the national tea party revolt, the anti-government movement with racial overtones that formed in reaction to then-President Barack Obama and his agenda for universal health care. The movement generated a powerful backlash that cost Democrats in Washington 63 seats and their House majority.

In Wisconsin, Republican Scott Walker, who had been Milwaukee County executive, was elected as governor. Republican businessman Ron Johnson defeated three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Republicans also gained a majority in both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature.

With Walker in the governor’s mansion, Republicans used their control of government in Madison to pass a law known as “Act 10,” which sharply restricted collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. The measure generated massive protests in the state and reverberated throughout the country as the chaotic demonstrations at the Capitol turned Madison into the epicenter of a national debate.

Wisconsin politics have not been the same since.

For the past decade the state has been an incubator for the kind of tribal politics and deep divisions that characterize civic life in Washington and much of the rest of the nation. While Wisconsin has been closely divided for a long time — four of the last six presidential elections were decided by less than a percentage point — the widening gulf between the two parties exposed in 2011 foreshadowed the extent to which American politics would come to focus more on the extremes rather than the middle of the political spectrum.

This has made Wisconsin not a purple state, as many people suggest, but two states in one — the first comprising a few heavily populated blue enclaves and the second a red sea of rural, small-town and suburban geography that surrounds those blue pockets.

It helps to explain why the state is simultaneously represented by Johnson, a staunch supporter of former president Donald Trump who has supported inquiries suggesting they were significant election irregularities in 2020 and spread debunked theories about coronavirus treatments, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person to serve in the Senate and one of the chamber’s more liberal Democrats.

Video taken after a political event at a hotel in Wauwatosa, Wis., on July 31 shows Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) talking about the attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Courtesy of Bridget Kurt)

And it reveals why Wisconsin is now once again a focal point as its two political tribes gear up for consequential races in 2022 for governor and U.S. Senate, campaigns that will no doubt position the state to play a decisive role once again in the next presidential contest.

Adding to the intensity is the ongoing specter of Trump, whose narrow win here in 2016 helped seal his shocking electoral college victory and who continues to falsely allege that election fraud is to blame for his narrow defeat last November. Walker contends that, because it was Trump who won in 2016, and not just any Republican nominee, Democratic worries about Wisconsin were magnified and national attention on the state increased.

“You add Donald Trump to the mix, it’s like pouring jet fuel on that angst from the left,” he said.

But in many ways, Walker, though of an entirely different personality, was the precursor to Trump, as his 2010 election victory marked a turning point for the state. Walker’s forceful, unyielding approach did more than change policy. Its lasting effects are seen by his critics as representing a fundamental departure in the state’s politics, upending the governing customs that had existed under previous administrations.

“When you have 51 percent of the vote, it had been generally [accepted] that you don’t govern like you’ve got 95 percent of the vote,” said Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “In 2011, that norm was abandoned.”

The protests over Act 10 eventually subsided. But the aftereffects have coursed through a series of nearly nonstop elections — general, special elections, recall elections. For partisans especially, the constancy of the battles, the need to organize and mobilize repeatedly, has provided little respite from the wars and no real opportunity to pull back from the barricades.

There are other divided states that play significant roles in setting the tone and charting the future of America’s politics. Florida, a politically complex battleground that dwarfs Wisconsin, has produced more than its share of close presidential and statewide elections over the past two decades. Ohio was once a front-line presidential state that drew the eyes of the nation, though far less so today. In 2020, President Biden’s victory margins over Trump were even smaller in Arizona and Georgia than in Wisconsin. Georgia’s two Senate runoffs last January attracted worldwide attention.

Still, Wisconsin, a state whose people enjoy a reputation for embodying the concept of “Midwestern nice,” stands out. Mark Copelovitch, Mayer’s University of Wisconsin colleague, argued that everything that has become commonplace at the national level, including the transformation and radicalization of the Republican Party, has been part of Wisconsin’s political experience for the last 10 years. “Wisconsin has been the canary in the coal mine,” he said.

Today, the state’s internal politics are best characterized by the faceoff between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, whose victory in 2018 blocked Walker’s bid for a third term, and the Republican-controlled legislature, whose leaders have become the dominant force of the party in the state. Now, its 2022 election campaigns seem destined once again to shape both state and national politics, with the high-profile Johnson and the low-profile Evers among the most targeted incumbents in the country.

Johnson, who has not yet decided whether to seek reelection even as multiple Democrats line up for the chance to oppose him, framed the 2022 midterm elections as the next chapter in an epic struggle between opposing philosophies. “This is really going to be an election focused on what is America and what path is America on right now, what path is America going to remain on,” he said. Evers, a politician of more minimalist rhetoric, summed up the midterm election year in Wisconsin in four words: “It’ll be a thing,” he said.

The road to Wisconsin’s divisions

Wisconsin has had a split personality politically for generations. In the early 20th Century, it produced Robert M. La Follette, a Republican who served as governor and senator and who became a national leader of the progressive movements. In the middle of the 20th Century, Wisconsin sent to Washington Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist red-baiting ruined the lives of innocent people and shamed a nation during a period that is remembered as a dark chapter in American politics.

One of a handful of Upper Midwestern states, Wisconsin hugs Lake Michigan on the east and part of its western border flanks the Mississippi River. A state known for both cheese curds and Cheeseheads and for rabid sports-team loyalties, it is both agricultural and industrial in character, although its manufacturing has declined as it has in other northern heartland states. Milwaukee is by far its largest city, anchoring the southeast corner of the state, followed by fast-growing Madison and Kenosha in the southern tier and Green Bay, Oshkosh and Appleton farther north.

Beyond the wide divergence in philosophies of Baldwin and Johnson, most of Wisconsin’s House members lean hard left or hard right. Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, a moderate who has represented southwestern Wisconsin in Congress for 13 terms and who recently announced he would not run again in 2022, said of the state’s House delegation, “I’ve never seen it more partisan or mean-spirited than it is right now.”

Close elections have become the norm. Trump won by 22,748 votes in 2016; Biden won by 20,682 in 2020. The 2000 and 2004 presidential contests were even closer. The 2018 gubernatorial election was decided by 29,227 votes. Of late, in presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races, only Baldwin has won a substantial victory, winning her 2018 reelection race with 55 percent and a nearly 11-percentage-point margin.

Politicians in the state look back to an earlier time and a quieter time. In 1986, voters elected Republican Tommy Thompson as governor. An activist conservative and preternatural salesman, he drew national attention for his work on health care and welfare policy. He was reelected three times, winning his third term with 67 percent of the vote and his fourth with 60 percent, before leaving office in 2001 to become secretary of health and human services in the administration of then-President George W. Bush. Thompson is the last Wisconsin governor to win the office with a president of the same party in the White House.

In 2002, after 16 years with a Republican governor, Wisconsin voters elected Democrat Jim Doyle, a former state attorney general, in a hard-fought election. There were clashes with Republicans, but Doyle remembers the governing climate as more constructive than today. “I had very conservative Republicans [in the legislature], but they still wanted to do things,” he said.

In 2011, Walker and his Republican allies were caught by surprise by the intensity of the blowback to Act 10. Fourteen Democratic senators decamped to Illinois to deny Republicans a quorum (as some Texas House Democrats did earlier this summer on voting rights). “We had no idea they’d leave the state …,” Walker said in a recent interview. “That’s when it fundamentally shifted. When they left, it bought them time to bring in more protesters to get more attention, and then that’s where it kind of blew up.”

Bewley, who now serves as Democratic leader in the state Senate, called Act 10 “the bomb” and described the response of Republican legislators when the Democrats fled to Illinois. “It was sort of like, ‘Okay, we’ll see your exit and we’ll raise you one marathon floor session,’” she said. “We were on the floor for I don’t even know the numbers now, 50 hours or something straight. … I never had sleep deprivation before. I can see why it’s torture. It’s pretty bad.”

Republican state Rep. Tyler August, who like Bewley was newly elected in 2010, said the battle over Act 10 was painful but worth it. “I would do it 100 times out of 100,” he said. “I just kind of hope I never have to because it was pretty miserable. But I mean the good parts of it were we got a piece of policy done that I would have never dreamed that we would be able to do.”

Walker, who believes that Democratic overreach during Doyle’s second term helped Republicans take the majority in 2010, stood firm in the face of the 2011 protests as the legislature enacted his agenda, further inflaming his opponents. He defended his decision to take on the unions, arguing that to deal with the budgetary imbalance he inherited, the least onerous option open to him was to cut state aid to local governments and schools.

“I knew if you’re going to reduce the amount of money the state provided to local governments you had to provide local governments something in return or they were going to just decimate their services,” he said. Act 10, he added, gave those local elected officials more power to force cost-saving concessions on union workers.

How gerrymandering and Trump split the state

Walker’s governorship had an additional impact. Over time, his policies weakened the power of unions, in a state where organized labor had a proud history and was a critical component of the Democrats’ campaign mobilizing strategy. “He undermined the Democratic infrastructure,” said state Rep. Gordon Hintz, the current Democratic leader in the state Assembly. “… Whether I like it or not, I think he’ll go down as maybe the most transformative governor in our state.”

Johnson blames Democrats and the left for creating the divisions that persist today. “The left stepped up, protested, occupied the Capitol … breached the Capitol, vandalized in some cases the Capitol, issued death threats to the legislators that voted for that,” he said.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on March 16 slammed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) for “bigoted tropes” about the Capitol attack and the Black Lives Matter movement. (U.S. Senate)

Bewley said Johnson’s blaming of the left for the continuing divisions is another example of changing norms. “[Johnson’s] attitude was an indication of what was also going to be part of the normal tools,” Bewley said. “Which is you lie. You tell people that this is the truth and you say it often enough and then people start to eventually believe it.”

The first years of Walker’s tenure produced something else that both changed the political balance in the state and aggravated the political environment. With their new majorities, Republican legislators drew legislative district lines that would lock Democrats out of power for the decade. Even when winning a majority of the total votes cast in Assembly races in 2018, Democrats ended with little more than a third of the seats in the lower chamber.

Wisconsin is hardly the only example of partisan gerrymandering. Democrats tend to cluster in urban areas with Republicans spread out somewhat in suburban and rural areas, making it possible to create districts packed with Democrats, thereby giving Republicans the opportunity to win other areas of the state if the lines are carefully drawn.

Evers said he is determined to prevent a repeat of that experience when new district lines are drawn for the 2022 elections and beyond. He has pledged to veto any gerrymandered maps approved by the Republican legislature and both sides are preparing for the issue to be sent to the courts. “Some time at the end of this year or early next year, we will have fair maps in Wisconsin,” he vowed.

Before Trump’s narrow victory in 2016, Wisconsin had not voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1984. The state was part of the Democrats’ vaunted blue wall. No matter how competitive the presidential race was in Wisconsin, Democrats had always managed to prevail and some thought that would continue in 2016. Trump’s victory punctured that illusion and Wisconsin became an even more fiercely contested battleground.

Baldwin, who prides herself on staying close to voters throughout Wisconsin, offered her perspective on how Trump’s election has affected everyday politics in a state. “Having a leader who kind of was a divider-in-chief has given a green light to that sort of conduct, and it’s filtered into our communities,” she said. “I’ve never really seen anything quite like it, to where a MAGA hat [Make America Great Again] impacts the conversation you’re going to have with somebody.”

In Madison, it’s Evers versus Republican legislators

In 2018, Evers, a former superintendent of public instruction, was the beneficiary of a nationwide reaction against Trump. His victory broke the GOP’s grip on all levers of power in Madison but only intensified the political wars. Even before he was sworn in, the legislature began to chip away at the powers of his office with legislation. Evers quickly understood what he was in for. “They made their point very clear right from the get-go,” he said.

The result has been a largely dysfunctional state government, with each side operating in parallel realities.

Evers and Republicans have been at odds over almost everything, most notably his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans reflexively objected to executive actions Evers issued to slow the spread of the virus. The Evers administration was sued nine times by various entities, according to the governor’s campaign, and the state Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, ruled against him three times, including over a stay-at-home order, a mask mandate and an order restricting bars and restaurants.

Traditional policy differences also stirred conflict. In February, Evers submitted a budget to the legislature that included a wish list of liberal policies: an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a higher minimum wage, background checks on gun sales, a ban on no-knock warrants among them. Republicans knocked out nearly 400 items in the Evers budget and started over.

In May, Evers called a special session focused on expanding Medicaid under the ACA. In addition to the enhanced federal cost-sharing written into the ACA, the expansion would have brought more than $1 billion in additional federal funds to the state through a sweetener in Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The GOP legislature responded by opening the special session and then gaveling it to a close in less than a minute.

Two examinations of the results of the 2020 election are underway. One, ordered last winter by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee of the legislature, is an audit of elections administrations and is being conducted by the Legislative Audit Bureau, a respected, nonpartisan entity. Its report is due this fall. The other review was ordered by Assembly Republicans and has clear partisan overtones.

Earlier in the summer, Trump chastised GOP leaders in the state for not being more aggressive in auditing the 2020 results. Republican leaders pushed back, claiming Trump was misinformed. More recently, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, widely regarded as the most skilled and powerful Republican in the legislature, met with Trump and said later that he had briefed the former president on “our robust efforts … to restore full integrity and trust in election.”

Vos tapped former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman to lead the review. In a recent video, Gableman said, “We are not challenging the results of the 2020 election. Rather we are holding government officials accountable to the public for their actions surrounding the election.” Last November, he was quoted as saying elected leaders had allowed unelected bureaucrats “to steal our vote,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

He has traveled to Arizona to look at the controversial, GOP-sponsored election review of Maricopa County that ultimately found that Biden had won, as the certified results had said. He also attended a symposium that included Mike Lindell of MyPillow, who has spread false conspiracy theories about the election. Gableman recently issued subpoenas to some local election officials asking for documents, but he has since pulled them back amid continuing negotiations.

Republican legislators have already passed and sent to the governor several bills to restrict voting procedures. Evers quickly vetoed them. “As long as I’m governor of this great state, antidemocracy efforts like this will never see the light of day,” he said.

Asked how he would describe his relationship with Republican legislators, Evers said, “They say ‘no’ right off the bat. And, you know, I can hang out with them 24/7 and they’d still say ‘no.’ And so, you know, our staffs can communicate on a regular basis and all that happens. And if we need to meet, we’ll meet. But we don’t meet that often.”

Vos, the Wisconsin Assembly speaker, did not agree to an interview after multiple requests.

High stakes in the coming gubernatorial election

It is a hot August morning and Evers is making his rounds on opening day at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee. He is dressed in jeans, a black polo shirt and, because Wisconsin calls itself “America’s Dairyland,” a white cap with black splotches that are meant to suggest the side of a milk cow. Accompanied by his wife, Kathy, and a few aides, Evers, 69, attracts little attention as he moves around the fairgrounds. Nor does he try to draw attention to himself. As he walks through a livestock pavilion, a man looks over and says, “Is that the governor?”

Evers’s low-key style has become a point of contention in the state. Republicans have sought to brand him as a weak and ineffective leader. Many Democrats see his style as a welcome change, though some lament privately that he hasn’t always been forceful enough in calling out the Republican legislators.

“I can’t be someone I’m not,” Evers said. “I think people like to have someone in charge that is levelheaded, isn’t going to go off the rails, isn’t going to spend a whole lot of time fighting back and forth when … it’s not going to solve anything. Are there people out there that are firebrands that think that I’m too mellow around those issues? Could be. I am who I am, as Popeye said, and that’s who they got.”

Evers is running for reelection on his record. Republicans will run against it. Rebecca Kleefisch served two terms as lieutenant governor with Walker and is seen as a favorite for the GOP nomination. Her campaign announcement video offered a preview of the strategy. “Tony Evers’s entire term,” she said, “has been marked by failure and weakness.”

Evers’s record now also includes, ironically, the new budget that was the focus of so much conflict. After considering a veto, he signed the measure, which includes new spending and a GOP-engineered tax cut. Democrats say it has given him an unexpected political opportunity. “As clever as Republicans thought they were being by stripping out spending the governor had proposed, he has signed a budget with a big tax cut, … a tax-cut-and-spend budget that doesn’t leave us in deficit,” said Ben Wikler, the state Democratic Party chair.

Walker acknowledged as much, with a caveat. “What the legislature did with the budget was, in some ways, they outsmarted Evers and his administration, but politically it was to his [Evers] advantage,” Walker said. “The flip side is he’s trying to run against the legislature. … How can you say they’re awful if you signed the budget?”

Wisconsin is a state where Whites make up 87 percent of the population, a higher percentage than other Great Lakes battlegrounds. Its Black population is centered largely in Milwaukee, with a handful of other counties accounting for most of the rest of the Black population. But even if their numbers are small in comparison to some other states, electorally Black voters still comprise a crucial component of the Democratic coalition.

Racial politics play an increasingly important role in Wisconsin after the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis in the spring and summer of 2020, and then the shooting by a White policeman of Jacob Blake, who is Black, in Kenosha, Wis., in August 2020.

Clashes in Kenosha during the protests that erupted after Blake was shot led to another shooting that left two people dead and another injured. An Illinois teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, was charged in the shootings of the two people, who had joined others to rally behind Blake and against the police. Evers ordered National Guard troops to Kenosha as the protests turned violent, with fires and property destruction.

“I think people are frustrated with the racial tensions,” said Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. “I think people have strong feelings about it, especially if you are a person of color in this state. … We deal with the microaggressions. We deal with the subtle racism. And sometimes it was swept under the rug. But I think 2020 really kind of blew that wide open.”

Kenosha promises to be a flash point in the elections of 2022 and already has been injected into the governor’s race. Kleefisch’s announcement video opens with video images of a street in Kenosha engulfed in flames. “One year ago, Kenosha burned,” she says, “and Tony Evers failed to lead.”

Calls for police reforms, especially talk of defunding the police, have created tensions inside the Democratic coalition. Moderates contend that some of the rhetoric during the summer of 2020 cost Democrats votes in the non-urban areas in the 2020 elections. “The whole defund movement last year was hurtful to Democratic causes throughout the country, and that was certainly true to in middle America as well,” Kind said.

“Tension is a good thing,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is running for the Senate, said of the strains in the Democratic coalition. “It’s how we grow, how we become the best version of ourselves. For too long there hadn’t been that tension. There hadn’t been that agitation. And the party had gotten a little complacent and complacency is how you lose people.”

The guessing game: Will Johnson run in 2022?

The Senate race in Wisconsin will be closely watched nationally, largely because Johnson has emerged as one of the most controversial and vulnerable Republicans on Capitol Hill. “The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter” lists Johnson as the only Senate incumbent in either party up for reelection next year in the toss-up category.

Johnson has been drawing fire of his own making for months. A December hearing on election irregularities that he chaired was widely panned by Democrats, who said it fed rather than debunked the false narrative peddled by Trump of a stolen election riddled with problems.

Johnson said he does not contest the fact that Biden won the election but argued that what he has done in exploring the issue is valuable. “The reason I held that hearing — I don’t get credit for it — I’m trying to defuse the situation,” he said. “I don’t think you can scornfully dismiss the legitimate concerns of tens of millions of Americans. This is an unsustainable state of affairs where no matter who wins, half the country is not accepting the result.”

He supports the Wisconsin election review, claiming that courts dealing with post-election lawsuits by Trump loyalists never really examined evidence of irregularities but instead ruled more on technical legal grounds. But numerous courts rejected what evidence of irregularities that was presented in the filings as flimsy, insufficient or nonexistent.

Johnson, who supports coronavirus vaccinations but has not gotten a shot because he says he already had the disease, has given voice to various false or misleading claims about treating the illness or the extent of serious side effects from the vaccine. “A guy like me that just asks questions, I get crucified in the press,” he said. “I’m just asking questions.”

Last year, when he was chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Johnson led an investigation into whether Hunter Biden’s position on an energy company in Ukraine had influenced his father’s efforts to have Ukraine’s top prosecutor replaced during the Obama administration.

The investigation, which mirrored efforts by Trump to stoke accusations against his future election opponent, found no wrongdoing by the then-Vice President Biden. But it concluded that the son had “cashed in.”

Johnson said Democrats who objected to the investigation play by a double standard. “Democrats … love investigating a Republican,” he said. “They don’t like it — nor by the way does the press like it — when a Republican investigates a Democrat. Sorry, but that was my job.”

The Senate race has attracted roughly a dozen Democrats seeking to challenge him. In addition to Barnes, the Democratic field includes state treasurer Sarah Godlewski; Alex Lasry, a political newcomer whose father owns the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team; and Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive. “It’s a real testament to Ron Johnson’s weakness,” Wikler said of the crowded field. “You don’t get this many people running if you’re an unstoppable juggernaut.”

Republican strategists say that Democrats risk underestimating Johnson again, as they did in 2010 and 2016. “He is better positioned than people give him credit for,” said Keith Gilkes, a Republican strategist and longtime adviser to Walker. “Democrats are way overconfident on beating him. The core reason why voters in Wisconsin elected him both times remains intact — going to D.C. to upset the establishment.”

Democrat Paul Soglin, who served three times as mayor of Madison, said he worries about what 2022 might mean for Democrats. “I can’t say I’m overly optimistic,” he said during the heat of the summer. “If Johnson runs, I think he will be a very formidable candidate. … I’m deeply concerned that the sense of urgency that was felt for the 2020 election will not be felt for the 2022 Senate race.”

Johnson said many voters are “begging me” to run again, though he pledged in the past to serve no more than two terms. Among those urging him on is Trump. “Every time somebody comes up and says, ‘You have to run, you’re like the only voice out there that is willing to talk about these things, who’s willing to be attacked in the press, who’s willing to draw fire through highlighting an issue,’ that has an impact,” he said.

Changing geography challenges both parties

The political geography and demography in Wisconsin present challenges to both parties as they look to elections in 2022 and 2024. In recent years, voting patterns have been moving in different directions, accelerated by the influence of Trump.

Some red areas of the state have become even redder while blue urban areas have become bluer, a phenomenon seen elsewhere in the country. A handful of traditionally Republican suburban counties, particularly those around Milwaukee known as the WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington), have run counter to this pattern, still strongly Republican in their leanings but with Democrats gaining strength.

For Democrats, the challenge is to hold those newly won suburban voters when Trump is not on the ballot and at a time when the Republican critique of Biden and the Democratic Party is that they are moving too far to the left with a costly expansion of government. The other challenge, given that picking up legislative seats is a priority, is finding ways to regain lost ground in the rural areas of the state, a problem for which they have few answers other than, as several put it, showing up.

The recent decision by Democratic House member Kind not to seek reelection in his southwestern Wisconsin congressional district highlighted the Democrats’ challenge with rural voters. In 2016, Kind did not have an opponent in his reelection campaign. In 2018, he won by 20 percentage points. Last year he squeezed through, winning by just 2 points.

Kind, 58, said recently he believes he would win if he were to run again and predicted that Democrats would hold the seat. But he said he was retiring because he is “out of gas” after a quarter century of traveling back and forth between Washington and his district. Still, he also acknowledged the growing support for Trump in his area of the state

Republican State Sen. Kathleen Bernier, vice chair of the GOP caucus, discounts Democrats’ complaints that gerrymandered districts are the primary reason they have trouble winning outside of their blue enclaves. Republicans, she said, have better candidates who work harder. “There are many districts where Democrats could win,” she said. “Suburban areas are more Democratic, but boy oh boy, the rural areas where they used to vote Democratic are voting Republican. Rural voters are all about discipline, law and order and patriotism. If you’re not for those, you’re not going to get elected.”

One of the most important factors affecting Wisconsin’s political geography is the increasing importance for Democrats of Dane County, which includes Madison and its environs. This is now the fastest-growing area of the state with a diversified economy beyond state government and the university. Population growth coupled with concerns about Trump have turned Dane County into what amounts to a Democratic vote factory.

“The thing that is unique about Dane in the Wisconsin context is that the suburban cities within Dane are almost as blue as Madison,” said Charles Franklin, who directs polling at Marquette University Law School. “The Madison vote doesn’t get counteracted by the Madison suburbs.”

If Wisconsin’s political geography seems ever-shifting, its politics have been unchanging, locked in a state of perpetual warfare and near-even division. Whether the elections in 2022 and 2024 will begin to move the state in a different direction is for now the big question. Few are willing to predict that will happen. “Wisconsin’s been political ground zero for almost a decade now,” Tyler August said. “It’s almost like people have gotten used to it, where they don’t expect anything different because it’s just been like this for a decade.”