MADISON, Wis. — Few states handed Democrats a bigger defeat in the midterm elections than Wisconsin, and few rebuffed President Obama so completely. Obama visited frequently during the campaign, including once in the final weeks for a major rally, only to have Republicans carry away a Senate seat, the governorship and both houses of the Legislature. But he is returning Wednesday after his State of Union address to launch a new message and to start over with a state critical to his future.
Obama plans to tour Orion Energy Systems, a renewable energy technology company, in Manitowoc, and talk about the economy with company workers. In his address to Congress and the nation Tuesday night, Obama will emphasize his efforts to create jobs now and to promote spending on innovation, according to the White House.
There are signs the Wisconsin economy is improving, which should improve the climate for his visit. Unemployment statewide was 7.5 percent in December, down from 8.3 percent in December 2009.
But many Democrats haven't forgotten the disastrous midterm, the first time since 1938 that Wisconsin's entire Legislature and governor's office flipped from one party to another. More than a few blame a president and national party they believe strayed from the priority of managing the economy and federal budget.
"Let's face it, for too long the president and his advisers got bogged down with White House politics and they failed to communicate with the American people," said Wisconsin state Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat from the northwest corner of the state who barely won re-election in November with 51 percent of the vote.
The public mood was sour heading into the election, said Jauch, a state senator for 23 years. But he believes spirits are reviving, and that Obama will be warmly welcomed to the small city on the shores of Lake Michigan known best as the place where a 20-pound chunk of the Russian satellite Sputnik crashed in 1962.
"I think it's like he's coming here for the first time," Jauch said.
Wisconsin's Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said he's not surprised Obama is back in Wisconsin despite the snub in November. Wisconsin was one of 28 states Obama carried in the 2008 presidential election, winning by 14 percentage points, and Democrats would be hard pressed to hold the White House in 2012 without its support. Until last fall, the state had been trending Democratic.
But no matter how much Obama talks up the economic recovery, Wisconsin voters showed last year where they stand now, said Priebus, who was elevated to Republican National Committee chairman after the Wisconsin sweep.
"The president tried this before in Wisconsin. He tried to frame the debate," Priebus said. "The debate was in fact framed and Republicans said we're going to vote for conservatives." Republican candidates campaigned on cutting government spending and promoting pro-business policies to create jobs.
Obama's visit, his seventh to the state as president, shows that he is "scared to death of the fact that Wisconsin has turned bright red," Priebus said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate agreed that winning Wisconsin is "absolutely critical" for Obama, but said Democratic policies will get more credit now that the economy is improving.
In Manitowoc County, where Obama will be Wednesday, unemployment was 7.7 percent in November, down from 9.1 percent in November 2009.
A city of 33,000 about 80 miles north of Milwaukee, Manitowoc boasts one of the country's largest maritime museums and an annual Sputnikfest celebration recognizing its spot in Cold War history. Politically, the county has swung between the two parties. Obama carried the county in 2008, but it went Republican the previous two presidential elections. In the midterm election, Republicans Scott Walker and Ron Johnson won the county's vote in the governor's and Senate races.