The Republican presidential contest is the least consequential drama on the Badger State's crowded political scene these days.
As Mitt Romney continues his joyless death march to the GOP presidential nomination, Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin presents the latest ostensible turning point. There are also delegate-awarding primaries in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, but it's Wisconsin that marks the latest this-could-be-it-folks showdown of heartland conservative voters -- you know, just like Illinois a couple of weeks ago, or Ohio on Super Tuesday, or Michigan back on Feb. 28. Once again, Romney is favored to win but vulnerable to surprise, and neither a close win nor a close loss would likely have the power to either a) drive out his determined rivals or b) alter the mathematical near-inevitability of a Romney nomination. They've all been turning points -- it's just that, turn after turn, the primary keeps on going, like the Indy 500.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin is a hotbed of fascinating political stories -- the primary just isn't one of them. Here are five things happening in Wisconsin politics more interesting than the Republican primary -- plus one more bit of big news in the state.
1. The Walker recall. After a year of turmoil and acrimony following his successful effort to jam public-worker bargaining reforms through the state legislature, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker faces a recall election. On Friday, the date was set for June 5 by a state board. The recall has roiled the political landscape of what was previously a more or less normal swing state, mobilizing liberals and public workers by the thousands -- the volunteer signature-gatherers collected a million anti-Walker petitions for the recall drive -- even as Walker has become a hero to the national conservative movement. Now, as the candidates campaign for the hearts of the state's GOP electorate, which is strongly on Walker's side, Romney and Santorum have expressed strong support for his initiatives. The early-summer election stands to be expensive, hard-fought and bruisingly negative -- a crucial preview of the November presidential stakes as well as a referendum on Walker's brand of hard-charging Tea Party conservatism. Three Republican state senators also face recalls; Democrats netted two seats in the state senate during a first wave of recalls last year, one short of taking the majority.
2. The Democratic gubernatorial primary. Last week, Walker's 2010 opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, announced his candidacy for the recall race. (Under Wisconsin law, a recall is a fully contested election with challengers, not a mere yes-or-no referendum on the recalled official; the Democratic candidates will face off in a May 8 primary.) As divisive as Walker has proven to be, the field of Democratic candidates against him includes no clear standout for progressives to rally around. Kathleen Falk, a former county executive, was considered the favorite before Barrett got in and is supported by major unions, who don't see Barrett as a champion. But now liberals face a potentially wrenching choice between the true-blue liberal who embodies the labor spirit animating the anti-Walker push (Falk) and a better-known but less ideological choice who might give them a better chance of winning (Barrett).
3. The court blow to Walker's anti-collective bargaining law. Walker's attempt to rein in collective bargaining suffered a setback last week when a federal court struck down some key parts of the legislation, ruling that the fact that Walker exempted police and fire unions -- a move his critics saw as a politically expedient attempt to keep public-safety workers in his corner -- made the measure a violation of equal protection.
4. The embezzlement investigation of former Walker staffers. It began as a relatively routine investigation by the Milwaukee district attorney into whether staffers conducted campaign business on government time during Walker's time as county executive, prior to being elected governor. But it has deepened into a probe of former staffers with ties to Walker on serious charges including embezzlement. Waker hasn't been implicated thus far in the closely held, grand jury-like investigation, but the taint of potential misconduct has contributed to increasing public skepticism of the controversial governor.
5. On top of all that, an abortion-clinic bombing. On Sunday night, an explosive device went off outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Grand Chute, Wisconsin. The chemical-filled plastic bottle caused minor structural damage and no injuries. Social issues haven't been the focus of any of Wisconsin's many political fights, but the shocking incident served as a reminder of the seriousness of the issues at hand.
6. Bonus story: Midwest Airlines cancels cookies. With all this political drama roiling the atmosphere, the No. 1 story on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website Monday was still bigger news: Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines plans to stop serving hot chocolate-chip cookies on all its flights.