By SCOTT BAUER
MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Republican wave that swept the nation in Tuesday’s midterm election was particularly deep in Wisconsin, bringing into office conservatives who want to make dramatic changes in the state’s style of government.
Republicans won the governor’s office, took both houses of the Legislature, captured the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Russ Feingold and picked up two congressional districts, giving them five of the state’s eight seats.
Republicans took the victories as a mandate to reject state policies pushed by retiring liberal Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and state lawmakers, as well as the national agenda advanced by President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress.
Republicans called for scaling back state government and discarding an $810 million high-speed rail project proposed for Wisconsin. They also called for cutting taxes for the wealthy and big businesses and repealing federal health care reform.
Democrats were left to debate whether to stick with their party’s progressive public agenda and wait for the political climate to change or to recast the party to try to win back in 2012 what they lost this year.
The widespread backlash against Democrats in Wisconsin and many other states was fueled by voter dissatisfaction with the economy, the federal deficit and a government perceived as spending irresponsibly.
“I think that when things are bad, as they are now, that you vote against the people who are in office,” said former Democratic Gov. Pat Lucey, who served from 1971 to 1977. “The economy is terribly depressed.”
Heightening the impact of Tuesday’s vote in Wisconsin was that many of the Republican winners were far to the right of the state’s traditionally moderate GOP.
Conservative candidates who won tea party support will set the agenda from the governor’s office and in the state Legislature. Governor-elect Scott Walker promised to force deep concessions from state workers and to leave unfilled thousands of vacant state jobs to help balance the budget.
The new approach could represent a reversal for a state that has spent public money to boost the economy and to expand infrastructure and research.
With Tuesday’s returns, four years of Democratic gains, highlighted by a 14-point victory by President Barack Obama, were wiped out in one night.
The sweep in the legislature, plus the governor’s office, marks the first time in 72 years that all three parts of the statehouse have flipped from one party to another.
Republican victories in congressional races will give the GOP a majority of Wisconsin’s eight seats for the first time since 1996.
Conservative Republican Ron Johnson’s victory over Feingold, a liberal who had been successful in attracting independent voters, marks the first time since 1986 that a Republican has been elected to the Senate from Wisconsin. Johnson, who came up through the tea party movement, made repealing federal health care reform a key issue in his campaign.
The atmosphere for the party in power was so dark that 28-year incumbent Secretary of State Doug La Follette, a Democrat with one of the most famous last names in Wisconsin political history, barely defeated a Milwaukee street minister who had filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
Popular U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, who’s up for re-election in 2012, is left as the highest-ranking Democrat in the state. He won four years ago with 67 percent of the vote, but has to be wondering what the mood of the electorate will be like when he’s on the ballot.
Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson said voters he encountered while campaigning for Republican candidates in Wisconsin were angry about government spending, taxes, the lack of jobs, and a feeling that their children will be mired in debt.
“It’s a malaise,” said Thompson, who was elected four times as governor before leaving in 2001 to take a cabinet position under President George W. Bush. “It’s a feeling that nobody cares and people will rise up and throw the incumbents out.”
Lucey said Obama’s policies have helped, but “it’s been a very slow process. If you’re unemployed or your brother’s unemployed or your friends down the street are unemployed, it’s hard for you to accept the fact that we’ve made some progress.”
Doyle, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low, decided not to seek a third term this year. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was the only prominent Democrat who decided to run, but Republicans repeatedly tied him to the unpopular Doyle, saying he would amount to a third term for Doyle.
Walker, a former state Assembly member during the Thompson years, easily beat Barrett on Tuesday 54 percent to 45 percent.