The Midwest has become the political fulcrum of America. Some Midwesterners, especially the over-politicked citizens of Iowa, might be willing to forego this honor, but the fact remains that Midwestern politics is setting the agenda for the election year to come.
If American politics are becoming more partisan, these Midwestern battles exemplify the split between right and left. With the Republican caucus in Iowa set for Jan. 3, the clout of right-wing Republicans, especially evangelical Christians, is pulling that party's presidential candidates far to the right of many moderate Republicans. In Wisconsin and Ohio, a Democratic backlash against attempts by Republican governors to break public service unions is pushing the Democratic party into a pro-union stance that may not play with the party's national electorate.
The probable Republican presidential candidate, whoever he or she is, is going to leave Iowa with a far-right stance that will be hard to shed in the national campaign ahead. On the Democratic side, President Obama is going to have to come out swinging for public service unions or risk alienating his party's base.
These Midwestern pressures on both sides could easily influence the November elections. Of the eight core Midwestern states, seven are swing states. Only Indiana is reliably Republican, and even Indiana joined the other seven in helping Obama sweep the region in 2008. The 2012 election looks much closer, and Obama is going to have to hold on to most of his Midwestern base to win re-election.
Given these stakes, the local battles going on now have national importance.
Iowa is a schizophrenic state politically, but you'd never know it from the drumbeat of political news out of the state in recent months. Iowa traditionally splits its vote down the middle, with industrial and unionized eastern Iowa going Democratic and rural, religious western Iowa going Republican. Over the years, Iowa has usually had one liberal Democratic senator and one conservative Republican senator: Sen. Tom Harkin (D) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R) carry on that tradition. The current governor, Terry Branstad, is a moderate Republican: his predecessor, Chet Culver, was a moderate Democrat.
So the evangelical right that is driving the caucus campaign there doesn't even speak for Iowa, much less the nation. A Republican candidate acceptable to this far-right fringe would have a hard time carrying the state in November and would turn off centrist voters around the nation. Yet the leading Republican candidates have been forced into statements -- on abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, the economy -- that they will be hard-pressed to disavow later.
Wisconsin and Ohio are not mirror images of Iowa but in some ways present equal problems for their parties. In both states, the rights of public service unions will be front and center, and in both, it's the Democrats who are pushing the issue in what appears to be a voter backlash against ideological overreach by new Republican governors.
Wisconsin captured front pages earlier this year when the new governor, Scott Walker, moved to end collective bargaining rights for public service union members, including teachers and other state and local employees. Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to deny Walker and his allies a quorum, but in the end, the Republicans' control of the legislature enabled Walker to push his program through.
The unions struck back first by forcing recall elections against six state senators. Had they won half the races, the Senate would have tipped back to Democratic control. But they won only two out of the six -- enough to send a message but not enough to stop Walker.
Now Walker himself faces a recall election in the new year. So do four other Republican senators. To make the election happen, Walker's opponents need 540,208 signatures on their recall petitions by the Jan. 17 deadline. At the moment, it looks certain that they will get that many, and more.
Here's where Wisconsin's impact on national politics gets speculative. The recall election, for Walker and the other Republicans, could come as early as March 17 -- in other words, nine months before the general election in November. But there certainly will be Republican appeals against the petitions and other court challenges. It's possible that this could put the recall election on the same day as the national election, which is Nov. 6.
There is unmistakable anti-Walker and pro-union fervor in Wisconsin, enough to defeat those two senators in the summer and fill petitions over the winter. Wisconsin is one of the most evenly balanced of the Midwest's swing states. If the anti-Walker voters pour out on election day, this could tip the state into the Democratic column, not only defeating Walker but helping to re-elect Obama.
On the other hand, the Republicans too have a lot at stake. If they see Walker as prey for the unions, they also will troop to the polls.
Then there's the four senators facing a recall election. In the earlier recall election, several Republican senators survived not because of their ideology but because they were local people, known to many voters and popular in their constituencies. The same sort of local identity seems certain to complicate the vote, whether it comes in November or earlier.
(In the meantime, the Democrats and unions, having gathered enough signatures to force a recall election, still have to come up with a Democratic candidate to run against Walker in that election. Some of Wisconsin's leading Democrats, like Russ Feingold and Jim Doyle, refuse to run. No other candidates have stepped forward. You can't beat somebody with nobody and, in Wisconsin politics, Gov. Walker definitely is somebody.)
Ohio is the quintessential swing state. In the past 13 presidential elections, no candidate has won the Oval Office without winning Ohio. Once again, union politics are a key issue in this election.
Gov. John Kasich also pushed a harsh anti-collective bargaining law through the Republican-dominated state legislature. In a referendum last month, Ohio voters repealed that law by a huge 60 percent margin. Ohio has no provision for gubernatorial recall, so Kasich is safe for the next three years, but the Democrats will be going after the governor's legislative majority in the coming November election.
The main target is Republican control of the Ohio House. The GOP controls two-thirds of the Senate, a probably unbeatable margin, but Democrats think they can capture the House, which could cripple Kasich's future programs.
Once again, local politics will affect the presidential election. If the Ohio Democrats can keep the anti-Kasich fervor going, it could undermine the Republican ticket and prop up the Democratic ticket, led by Obama, who desperately needs Ohio if he is going to win a second term.
The Democrats, as usual, will probably win the Northeast and much of the West Coast, including California. The Republicans have a lock on much of the South and the non-coastal West. So once again, this presidential election will be won and lost in the Upper Midwest, and the fight has already begun.