Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz greets workers at Dane Manufacturing during a campaign stop on March 24, 2016 in Dane, Wisconsin. Wisconsin voters go to the polls for the state's primary on April 5.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz greets workers at Dane Manufacturing during a campaign stop on March 24, 2016 in Dane, Wisconsin. Wisconsin voters go to the polls for the state's primary on April 5. - 

Wisconsin heads to the polls Tuesday as a state divided.

It's a swing state that's gone blue in every election since 1988, but the government is under full Republican control. Governor Scott Walker ran a flash-in-the-pan presidential campaign, but only after surviving a brutal recall fight. The state also borders two metropolitan areas — Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago — so economically powerful they're distorting Wisconsin's key indicators.

"The big disconnect, the one that leads some I think legitimate and serious discussion among economists, is how to explain why the Wisconsin unemployment rate is lower still then the national rate, yet job growth here is so much slower," said Marc Levine, A senior Fellow and Founding Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for Economic Development. "If you look at the data, a nontrivial percentage of residents of Wisconsin are finding work in Minnesota and in Illinois."

And comparing America's Dairyland to its neighbors isn't always flattering. Minnesota's economy is very similar to Wisconsin's, and they chugged along at almost the exact same pace for decades. But Wisconsin started lagging around 15 years ago, and the gap only widened after the Great Recession.

The two states have showcased very distinct models of recovery, says Logan Kelly, Director of the Center for Economic Research at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.  About 20 minutes outside the Twin Cities, he's seen firsthand people crossing state lines to work.  Wisconsin had an "compromised strategy of fiscal conservatism," he said, whereas after a brief shutdown in 2011, Minnesota's Legislature had to compromise more. 

"I think it's very arguable that if we look at Minnesota and Wisconsin as kind of a microcosm for this debate we've had the past 10 or 15 years, that a little more balanced approach seems to have produced a better performance," he said, though there are other structural factors at work.

Walker has also brought huge cuts to education, which hasn't helped the state make up ground on high-skilled jobs in tech and healthcare. While Minnesota has transitioned to a more knowledge-based economy, Wisconsin is still manufacturing-heavy. That makes it particularly vulnerable to changes in trade policy, Levine said. Those jobs — along with the public sector — used to have stronger unions, Levine said, but now Wisconsin's unionization rate is among the lowest in the country.

"Right now he's not a particularly strong force, but [Walker] and the Republican Legislature that came in with him in 2010 fundamentally remade the state of Wisconsin," Levine said. "They passed scores of bills that have changed not just the economy but the political system with voter ID [and] the social system in a lot of ways."

Walker's popularity has been sagging since his failed run at the GOP nomination, and Kelly said there's an indication the state might be losing its appetite for big budget cuts. The state could well swing back to the left in November, Levine said, but thanks to gerrymandering and lower voter turnout for gubernatorial elections any change at the state level will take much longer.

"I don't think there's any evidence that Wisconsin is poised for any big kind of progressive bounce back," Levine said. But, "that doesn't mean that the democrats wouldn't probably have a slight edge in this year's general election."

So Wisconsin is still caught in the middle.

"When you think of Wisconsin you can't really paint it blue, you can't really paint it red, you can't really paint it purple," Kelly said. 

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Follow Tony Wagner at @tonydwagner