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Wisconsin stands to play a pivotal role Tuesday in determining both control of the U.S. Senate and who wins the most contentious presidential election in modern history.

The political drama is playing out in a state that has voted Democratic for president since 1984, but has been controlled by a Republican governor and Legislature the past six years. Candidates from both parties are hoping to ride top-of-the-ticket coattails to win legislative races that have already seen record spending by outside interest groups on both sides.

More than 685,000 early absentee ballots — a state record set after a federal judge rejected Republican-imposed restrictions on early voting — have already been returned, according to the Wisconsin Election Commission. An estimated 3.1 million people, or just shy of 70 percent of eligible voters, are expected to cast a ballot, with many of them experiencing the state’s new voter ID requirement for the first time.

The state is one of a handful that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is strongly contesting to reach the needed 270 electoral votes despite polls showing voters leaning toward Democrat Hillary Clinton. However, he canceled a rally scheduled for Sunday in West Allis, raising questions about his commitment to the state.

“It’s clear that Wisconsin could be one of the three or four states that decide the presidential election,” said Iowa-based Republican strategist Steve Grubbs. “In every scenario that Trump wins, Wisconsin seems to be a pivotal state.”

National political experts give Clinton the edge, but agree Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes are crucial for Trump to eke out a victory.

“Things have definitely closed,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “You could lump Wisconsin in a group of traditionally blue states that Trump needs to crack in order to get over the top in the race.”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said “everything that people see publicly and privately in the tracking suggest Clinton’s blue wall in the rust belt is holding, and that includes Wisconsin.”

“When candidates are hopscotching around and visiting loads of states that might turn their way, they’re probably losing,” Sabato said, referring to Trump’s weekend travel schedule, which now includes a stop on Sunday in Minneapolis, a Democratic stronghold.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate rematch between Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Russ Feingold has tightened during the final sprint to Election Day.

With Democrats needing four seats held by Republicans to reclaim the majority (or five if Trump wins the presidency), Wisconsin could determine which party controls the Senate.

Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy said she moved the race from leaning Democrat to a toss-up even before the latest Marquette Law School Poll showed Feingold’s lead whittled to 1 percentage point. That’s because of more than $4 million in political ads from both sides flowing into the race in the last week.

“If Johnson gets re-elected, it is very hard to see how Democrats get the majority,” Duffy said.

GOP claims momentum

Wisconsin Republicans were claiming momentum heading into the final weekend of the campaign. Trump had planned to make his sixth and final appearance in the state Sunday at the Wisconsin Fairgrounds, a half hour before the Green Bay Packers kick off. However, the event was canceled Saturday.

“I never thought at the beginning of the year that this was going to be a Republican year, but it appears to me that this is going to be a Republican year,” said former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. “Wisconsin is going to be the state that puts (Trump) over the top with electoral votes.”

The Marquette poll found Clinton leading by 6 points, but Republican Party of Wisconsin executive director Mike Duffey said internal polling was showing a closer race before the FBI disclosed it was reviewing emails that might relate to its investigation into Clinton’s private email server when she was secretary of state.

Duffey said Republicans are confident they can win both Wisconsin races because Clinton is viewed unfavorably, voters are seeking change and the party has rolled out its largest get-out-the-vote effort ever. That includes knocking on more than 710,000 doors in the past four weeks, compared with more than 415,000 doors knocked in the final five weeks of the 2012 campaign.

“Our office count, staff and contacts are all above 2012,” Duffey said. “We will have the superior effort to get every Republican out to the polls.”

The Marquette poll showed a 10-point gap in Trump’s support among Republican men and women. The state party released an ad Thursday featuring Republican women, including Sens. Alberta Darling, of River Hills, and Leah Vukmir, of Wauwatosa, supporting Trump because of his positions opposing abortion and Obamacare and his pledge to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.

The poll also showed Trump tied in southeast Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee. Republican nominee Mitt Romney led by 10 points in that region at this point in the 2012 election.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle dismissed Republican talk of momentum as something one side says when it is behind.

“I think you’re going to see a very solid Democratic turnout,” Doyle said. “And if that happens, particularly with Trump’s problems with independents and women, I think you’ll see a fairly substantial Clinton victory here.”

Clinton has not visited Wisconsin since the April primary. Barring a last-minute campaign stop, she would become the first major party candidate to skip the state since 1972, though she has sent plenty of surrogates in the closing weeks of the election, including Vice President Joe Biden last week. Running mate Tim Kaine, the U.S. senator from Virginia, plans to campaign in three Wisconsin cities on Sunday.

Doyle interpreted Clinton’s absence from Wisconsin as a sign of strength, noting “it’s much better they’re fighting over North Carolina than they’re fighting over Wisconsin.”

Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist Patrick Guarasci said Democrats are expecting huge turnout by minority voters, especially because of Trump’s comments throughout the campaign, including saying that a judge couldn’t impartially hear a lawsuit against Trump University because of his Mexican heritage — which even Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan decried as “textbook racism.

“I believe we’ll see a huge increase of Hispanic voters, which will be the sleeping giant,” Guarasci said.

Early voting totals through Friday are 78 percent higher in the Democratic strongholds of Dane and Milwaukee counties than in the Republican strongholds of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.

Senate race tight

The last Marquette poll showed Feingold up by a point, though others have showed a slightly larger lead. Feingold led by as much as 11 points in a Marquette poll from early August and 12 points in other polling as recently as a month ago.

Republican strategist Mark Graul noted that Johnson is trying to do something that Republicans haven’t done since 1980 — win a Wisconsin Senate race in a presidential election year.

Graul predicted some ticket-splitting, particularly among conservatives in the Milwaukee suburbs who won’t vote for Trump, but will still come through for Johnson.

The Marquette poll found 85 percent of Trump supporters backing Johnson and 6 percent for Feingold, and 84 percent of Clinton supporters backing Feingold, and 9 percent supporting Johnson.

“One of the best stories has been the fantastic job of the Johnson campaign of really making this a close race,” Graul said. “Even two months ago, there weren’t too many people who believed we’d be talking here the Friday before the election and talking about this as a toss-up race.”

State Democratic Party chairwoman Martha Laning said she expects voters will elect Feingold because of his support for raising the minimum wage and helping reduce student loan debt.

“We’ve had over 100 staff members working all over the state. We have volunteers coming in, in record numbers. … Our early voting turnout is breaking records,” Laning said. “They want to see Russ win with a big margin. They want to see Hillary Clinton become our next president.”

Other races

There are other races to watch on Tuesday.

Voters in the 8th Congressional District in the Green Bay area will elect either Republican Mike Gallagher or Democrat Tom Nelson as their new Congressman. And Republican control of the state Senate could narrow as the two most closely watched races have been held this past session by Republicans.

As the results roll in Tuesday night, national attention will continue to focus on Ryan, of Janesville, who said Friday he will run again for House speaker. He has faced criticism from tea party Republicans for not embracing Trump more fully. Though on Saturday, Ryan said that he would campaign with Trump in Wisconsin on Sunday just before Trump announced he was canceling his visit to the state.The latest Marquette poll found division among Republicans over whether Trump or Ryan should lead the party regardless of the outcome of the election.


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.