During the 1890's a split developed within the state Republican party, which had controlled Wisconsin politics since the Civil War. The party itself was ruled by bosses who represented lumber and railroad interests. A reform movement led by Robert M. La Follette, a Madison lawyer, was supported by small farmers, dissident Republicans, and social reform groups.
La Follette was elected governor in 1900 and reelected in 1902 and 1904. His administration enacted significant social, political, and economic reforms, including effective railroad regulation, a civil service program, a workmen's compensation law, and the nation's first primary election law.
La Follette's program for bringing about effective government reform came to be called "Progressivism." His administration worked closely with the University of Wisconsin, and the concept of using university facilities and faculty to help promote progressive legislation was known as the "Wisconsin Idea." After La Follette was elected to the U.S. Senate (1905) further reforms were enacted by other progressive governors. In 1911 Victor L. Berger of Milwaukee became the first Socialist to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
During the 1920's Wisconsin was generally prosperous, as industrialization spread and dairying increased in importance. In 1924 various farmers' groups, liberals, Socialists, and dissidents from both major political parties formed the League for Progressive Political Action, popularly called the Progressive party. It nominated La Follette for President. In the election, La Follette polled almost five million votes but carried only Wisconsin.
During the 1930's Wisconsin, along with the rest of the nation, was hit hard by the Great Depression. Much-needed social legislation was enacted under governor Philip F. La Follette, a son of Robert. Some of this legislation served as a model for later federal social security laws.