Wisconsin had some powerful Republicans in the mix not too long ago. Reince Priebus was head of the RNC which he parlayed into a White House job in the Trump administration. Scott Walker was the Governor who won two terms, a recall effort, and barely lost a third term. Paul Ryan had risen to the top of the House as Speaker after Boehner made his exit and was even a Vice Presidential candidate. After 2018, Priebus is gone from the White House, Walker was shown the door, and Ryan retired. All that is left is Senator Ron Johnson- an unlikely leader of the party in the state given the fact he became a Senator running as an outsider.
What is interesting is that before being elected in 2010, he pledged to serve only two terms. He’s in his second term now and the question is whether he will honor that pledge come 2022. Although it is not uncommon for politicians to go back on self-imposed term limits, there is the option of a gubernatorial run, or he can simply just retire.
In the interim, he is begrudgingly playing the role of de facto party leader. After 2018, he asked that the GOP in the state look into what went wrong. What he found, later confirmed by state party chief Mark Jefferson, was less attention paid to local level operatives and less infrastructure than in previous years. Some long-time observers of Wisconsin noticed that Republicans relied perhaps too heavily on ads and digital media rather than old-fashioned campaigning techniques. As strategist Bob Dohnal noted: “Wisconsin is the place where people say, ‘Gee, I don’t know if I can vote for the guy — I’ve only met him four times.'”
The review also noted that the 2018 campaign outsourced the state party to the Walker campaign and was “relentlessly reliant” on consultants. Some of this reliance on consultants led to $500,000 pay days for doing routine campaign work. The report further stated that local activists and volunteers were often ignored and treated rudely by the professionals. In its wake, Johnson is calling for more reliance on the grassroots instead of a top-down bureaucracy and fielding Republican candidates for every possible position on any ballot.
It should also be mentioned that this reliance on consultants left the Wisconsin in a precarious financial situation. It missed insurance payments and maxed out on a credit card and was forced to pay $600 a month in interest alone. However, since then Diane Hendricks, a Wisconsin billionaire, threw the party a $500,000 lifeline and in the first six months of 2019, they have brought in over $300,000 in corporate donations compared to just $65,000 for the Democrats.
As for 2020, that same report suggested that the state GOP candidates align themselves with Trump. At a Green Bay rally, Johnson was at Trump’s side and flew back to DC on Air Force One. In fact, many of the people who voted for Trump in 2016 did not stick with GOP candidates in 2018. The RNC has a vast and sophisticated database in battleground states and Wisconsin is no different. They have identified 188,000 Trump voters who failed to show up in 2018. In coordination with the RNC and Trump campaign, the state GOP is now training field organizers and hopes to have more than 120 by Election Day 2020, double the amount in 2016.
Most political pundits at this point believe that between the three key swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Wisconsin may be the toughest for a Democrat to win. Demographically, it has the highest percentage of white, blue collar workers and the lowest percentage of minority voters. Both these factors work to Trump’s advantage. Naturally, the drift of suburban Republicans to “independent” status and the increased GOP advantages in the rural areas also is evident in Wisconsin.
Although few expect a Democrat to win the WOW counties surrounding Milwaukee- Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington- the level of enthusiasm for Trump could prove key. These three counties serve as a GOP counterweight to Democratic strongholds in Milwaukee and Madison. Republicans seem ready and willing for the political fight of their lives. They have been organizing relentlessly since 2017.
Further, what the GOP has going for them most are the Democrats. State senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald believes that support for Trump is greater today than it was in 2016 in Wisconsin. The strategy is to plug the economy and paint the opposition as too extreme for Wisconsin. As Scott Walker said of the Democrats:
You’ve got candidates talking about getting rid of cows. That’s kind of funny anywhere, but in Wisconsin messing with cows is not funny business. We’ve got an $80 billion agriculture industry and about half of that is dairy.
Meanwhile, the Democrat’s story is strictly demographic and has nothing to do with the message. Their strategy is to run up the victory margins in Milwaukee and Dane county (Madison) while holding down the GOP margins in the WOW counties.
There are very few things the GOP and Democrats agree upon in Wisconsin except one (more on that in a second). After Walker lost the gubernatorial race in 2018, the lame duck legislature passed laws severely limiting his powers to undo Walker-era reforms. The GOP-dominated legislature recently fired the state agriculture secretary which prompted Democrat governor Tony Evers to launch into a profanity-laced tirade and call the action “amoral.” Although the courts have overturned the legislation restricting the powers of Evers, Republicans seem content to play the role of #TheResistance by taking up issues like abortion. Recently, Evers called for a special legislative session to take up gun control. The GOP legislature complied and met for about 30 seconds before closing the special session with no debate or legislation.
As for the one thing Republicans and Democrats agree upon in Wisconsin- impeachment. According to the most recent poll of Wisconsin voters by Marquette University Law School, only 40% of voters believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office. In October, support for impeachment among Wisconsin voters stood at 44%. Some Democrats are silently grumbling that by drawing out the Impeachment Show, it gives Trump a clear advantage.
There is also the double-edge sword of holding the DNC nominating convention in Milwaukee in 2020. This is a huge nod to the importance of Wisconsin in 2020 to hold their convention in a state that Hillary Clinton campaigned in exactly never in 2016. However, that can also be viewed as pandering to Wisconsin voters. As former Governor Scott Walker also noted, Wisconsin will be witness to the radical Democratic agenda right in their backyard. It is also a given that these conventions tend to draw the most radical of protesters, and liberal protesters are the worst of the lot.
If there is one dim area for the GOP, it is the impending departure of Sean Duffy from the Seventh District. He is retiring to deal with family health issues. His ninth child has a serious heart defect that will require his presence in Wisconsin, not DC.
Overall, it appears that the Wisconsin GOP has righted the ship after a dismal 2018. Financially, they are solid coupled with solid support behind President Trump. They are committed to the grassroots base, not overpaid professional consultants. They know their strengths and their weaknesses. Because the Trump people left an infrastructure in place after 2016, they have a leg up on Democrats. In short, they are leaving nothing to chance and that is a good sign.