In politically bloody Wisconsin, it's neighbor against neighbor
A few miles up State Highway 16, 49-year-old lawman Dave Knapp sees Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch elitist who "doesn't come from the same world I do."
Such sharp reactions are quite common in a state gripped by polarized politics, a key reason Republicans and Democrats are lavishing outsized attention and campaign dollars on Wisconsin in not just the presidential race but also a razor-tight contest for an open U.S. Senate seat.
In a nation that color-codes political allegiance in blue and red, Wisconsin is as deeply purple as a throbbing bruise, with the accompanying scars to prove it from nearly two years of constant and unprecedented partisan confrontation.
Like many states, Wisconsin has pockets that lean reliably left or right. But here in Columbia County, the fault lines appear to be exceptionally evenly split, making it one of the swingiest counties in one of the nation's swingiest states _ at least politically speaking.
Results from recent elections in the county, with a population of nearly 57,000 and stretching from the far northern suburbs of Madison to the Wisconsin Dells, suggest that for every Will Cekosh there is likely to be a Dave Knapp.
In 2010, Columbia County voters backed tea party favorite Scott Walker for governor by slightly more than 1,000 votes. In a bitter June recall effort, the county did an about face and voted to boot the Republican by a margin of 158 votes _ though he prevailed statewide and remained in office.
In tiny Fall River, fast by the shores of Lazy Lake, the recall vote could hardly have been tighter: 343 voted to keep Walker and 342 voted to replace him with a Democrat.
Wisconsin, the state that spawned the progressive movement and McCarthyism, is prone to sharp mood swings when it comes to politics. In 2008, the state smothered Obama in electoral love, giving the Democrat a nearly 14 percentage point victory margin over Republican John McCain.
Two years later, it replaced liberal Sen. Russ Feingold with conservative Ron Johnson while handing the reins of state government exclusively to Republicans, including the tough-talking Walker. His budget cuts to education and social programs as well as an assault on collective bargaining rights for public workers triggered widespread resentment, demonstrations and a spate of recall moves against the governor and many legislators.
How raw is the mood these days? Ask Stig Rahm, the county's Republican party chairman, who said a woman he has known for years recently took great offense when she saw him in the stands at a football game wearing a sticker for GOP Senate hopeful Tommy Thompson, an opponent of abortion rights.
"She just tore into me," recalled Rahm. "Her thing was that now Republicans were trying to 'touch my uterus.'"
Thompson's Senate bid is a vivid illustration of the state's deep divisions. A former governor with a moderate streak and a reputation for dealmaking, Thompson tacked sharply to the right to win the GOP primary over three staunchly conservative opponents.
Gregarious and widely known, Thompson was the early favorite to run away with a general election battle for a seat that could tip the balance of power in the Senate. Yet some late polls suggest he may now be a slight underdog in the race against Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a veteran congresswoman from Madison with one of the House's more liberal voting records.
Federal Election Commission reports show that the two candidates combined with special interest groups that support them have poured more than $40 million into the race, much of it on relentless attack ads.
By the same token, Obama was heavily favored to win Wisconsin not long ago despite the rightward tilt in state politics. But the president has been in a nip-and-tuck battle with Romney, whose vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan, is a House member from Janesville. Again, however, some late polls indicate the pendulum may be swinging back the president's way.
Ryan has worked his home-state connection, returning to campaign multiple times in recent weeks. Former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have also been frequent visitors on Obama's behalf, with Biden even working in a recent side trip to Kenosha's landmark Mars Cheese Castle.
As for the headliners, Obama made a brief stop in Green Bay on Thursday and plans a return engagement to Milwaukee over the weekend. Romney, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit the Milwaukee suburbs on Friday.
A critical testament to the ferocity of campaigns here is how thick the airwaves have become with political ads.
The parent of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper reported recently that profits for the third quarter of 2012 were up 73 percent over the previous year, fueled largely by political and issue advertising at its television and radio stations in Wisconsin and other states.
Columbia County's TV feed comes from Madison, where one half-hour newscast the other day was crammed with 13 political commercials, most of the scorched-earth variety:
"I used to be for Tommy Thompson, but not anymore. He sold out."
"I voted for Barack Obama. I had high hopes. But you know what? I got burned."
"Mitt Romney isn't the solution. He's the problem."
"Washington politicians like Tammy Baldwin are destroying our economy and spending our children into debt."
Up in Portage, the county seat, senior citizen Jim Sparks tucked into a bowl of chili at the Sunrise Cafe on Cook Street as he revealed his personal coping mechanism to withstand the non-stop political ad assault.
"I just turn off my hearing aid," said Sparks, dressed in a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt.
The Sunrise is the kind of cozy, small town eatery with breakfast and lunch regulars so familiar to owner Kathy Miller that she recites with precision their arrival times and favorite dishes. She has been known to summon police for a well-being check when older customers fail to show.
Miller avoids talk of politics on the job, though she shows off a wastebasket full of campaign circulars that arrived in the mail. Even so, she admits being driven crazy by one anti-Baldwin ad playing over and over again that captures the usually soft-spoken Democrat snarling the word "damn."
Also catching Miller's attention, and not in a good way, has been a widely circulated You Tube video of Baldwin at a gay rights festival in Madison. "Her dancing up on the capital without a bra on is a little too liberal for me," said Miller, who was then quick to make her critique thoroughly bipartisan.
"But Tommy Thompson, what's he done?" she added.
Between the recalls, separate primaries for president and Senate, as well as local elections, Tuesday will represent the fifth vote in the county this year, and Portage Mayor Ken Jahn said the financial cost, not to mention the tension, is clearly taking a toll.
"I can see it in the staff we have, in their faces," Jahn said of the reaction to Wisconsin's churning political turmoil. "They are just getting tired. We are all kind of hoping it ends."
The county's evenly split political personality has a lot to do with its proximity to Democratic leaning Madison, a state capital and college town. Jahn said half the working population in his community of 10,324 commutes daily to Dane County, which includes Madison, a trip of 30 or more miles each way.
One of those is Knapp, a Dane County deputy sheriff, who joined last year's protests in Madison against Walker and fears Republican election gains will only lead to further erosion of union rights at the state and national level.
"If Obama doesn't win, we're going to be a right to work state," he predicted, invoking the common term for laws in many states _ though not Wisconsin _ that forbid compulsory union membership.
Cekosh, the insurance agent, favors Romney because he has vowed to bring a businessman's sensibility into the Oval Office. That said, Cekosh sees his vote as much anti-Obama as pro-Romney. "He seems to be more of a socialist," Cekosh said of the president.
The recalls served as catalysts for both political parties to fine-tune get-out-the-vote ground games, and Columbia County Democratic Chairman Ray Frey said the high stakes and tensions of this election have kept him and hundreds of grassroots volunteers working at a fever pitch.
Frey also has a day job as a mental health counselor. "After this, I may be my own best customer," he said.