Wisconsin GOP Gears Up for Massive 2020 Battle

Wisconsin GOP Gears Up for Massive 2020 Battle
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Wisconsin GOP Gears Up for Massive 2020 Battle
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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Scott Walker made multiple calls when the Democratic National Committee decided on Milwaukee. He also called his sons. The former Wisconsin governor, himself a onetime presidential contender, suggested the boys check their lease. They live downtown. Maybe they – and their neighbors too -- could Airbnb their apartments. Make some extra cash next July.   

“I’m thrilled from an economic standpoint,” Walker told RealClearPolitics of the Democratic Party’s decision to bring its national convention  to the Badger State. “The money being spent in Milwaukee won’t be red money or blue money. It will be green money. That’s a good thing.”

Every flack and hack, politico and politician who spoke to RCP about the decision said something similar. Eminently practical, these midwestern Republicans are bright-eyed about the pluses and the minuses of Wisconsin as a battleground in 2020. They are excited about the economic stimulus. They are also preparing for the political fight of their lives.

“Oh, absolutely,” Walker said when asked if Democrats could win Wisconsin on their way back to the White House. “We have been a blue state for years. We had a temporary reprieve from that in recent years.”

It is easy to forget that after the outsized success of Wisconsin Republicans on the national stage in the last decade. Paul Ryan (Janesville) rose from relative obscurity to become speaker of House. Die-hard party activist Reince Priebus (Green Bay) became the GOP’s national chairman and later White House chief of staff. Walker (Delavan) was the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. The three helped reshape conservative politics and the country.

Then the cheesehead juggernaut crumbled.

Priebus resigned. Ryan retired. And around 1:30 in the morning after last Election Day, when Walker narrowly lost the governor’s mansion to Democrat Tony Evers, Sen. Ron Johnson had a rude realization. He was “the last man standing.”

As the only Republican statewide office-holder left in Wisconsin, Johnson became the de facto head of the party. He began trying to rebuild the GOP political machine, first figuring out what worked well and what had gone wrong. His assessment? He thinks Democrats can “absolutely” win back Wisconsin in 2020. He fears they may have a 100,000 to 200,000 structural vote advantage. And he expects Democrats will make his state “Ground Zero.”

“For the GOP to win,” Johnson told RCP, “when Democrats are all fired up, we have to be firing on all cylinders. We need to be just about perfect.” Near-perfection is necessary after 2016 when Donald Trump pulled off a historically unlikely upset in Wisconsin, something no other Republican has achieved since Ronald Reagan. Democrats’ turnout was down. Trump’s opponent did not bother to visit the state during the general election campaign. Trump won by roughly 23,000 votes, less than a percentage point. Among other things, he got lucky.

“Whoever the Democrats nominate certainly isn’t going to make the same mistake as Hillary Clinton did, abandoning Wisconsin,” a Trump campaign official told RCP. “The problem is they aren't going to have the early advantages of time, resources and money. The Democratic nominee this time isn’t going to be able to truly begin organizing in Wisconsin until July or August of 2020.”  

Making the most of that head start, Republicans are gearing up their operation for a landscape that Trump completely tore to pieces in the last presidential campaign. His machine sputtered in the suburban counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington as those conservative hotspots cooled on the so-called chaos candidate. It more than roared back in the northern and western parts of the state as Trump flipped 23 counties from Democrat to Republican.

While he lost support among proverbial soccer moms in the wealthiest, most educated, and more Republican counties, he crushed it with rural voters. This was not an anomaly, said nonpartisan pollster Charles Franklin of Marquette University Law School. It is the new Republican normal.

Blue-collar voters, who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 before turning out for Trump four years later, mostly backed Walker in 2018. The two-term governor would also slip in the suburbs, gain traction beyond of the cities, and win more votes than ever, 1.29 million. Yet Walker still could not overcome a nationwide Democratic suburban surge.

“That shows this geographic pattern where areas that swung toward Trump seemed to move more in Walker’s direction than they had four years earlier,” Franklin told RCP.  Taken together, the gubernatorial and the presidential contests provide a rough rubric for the next presidential race.

“The Democrats’ formula for winning Wisconsin is relatively straightforward,” longtime Wisconsin talk show host Charlie Sykes wrote in the Atlantic. “They need to run up big margins in Milwaukee County and Dane County (home to Madison)” --  where the University of Wisconsin flagship campus is located -- “while holding down GOP margins in the Milwaukee suburbs and in the state’s rural areas.”

For Republicans, it is the converse. Revive the suburbs, build strength in the rural north and west, and cut losses in Milwaukee and Dane County. According to Johnson, “If we could somehow get those counties to secede into Illinois, we’d be in pretty good shape as Republicans.”

That will not happen, of course, so the senator says that on his watch, the GOP “isn’t going to ignore those [urban] areas.” Instead Republicans will try to thread the rural-urban needle, a job that will likely fall, in large part, to two congressmen.

Sean Duffy represents the rural 7th Congressional District in Trump-friendly north and northwest Wisconsin. Jim Sensenbrenner represents the 5th District in the Trump-skeptical Milwaukee suburbs. Both expressed confidence the president can win re-election, though neither is under any illusion it will be easy. Duffy told RCP that the bipartisan “State of the Union argument is the best argument” for Trump. Sensenbrenner seemed to agree, and asserted that the president should confine his tweeting to policy issues rather than slights. “We can win on the issues,” he said. “I’m not so sure we win on the personalities.”

Borrowing a phrase from the Bill Clinton era, Sensenbrenner continued: “It still is the economy, stupid. As long as that is going well and he is able to take credit for it, I think things will go very well.”

The economy, Duffy believes, will provide the crossover appeal between the blue-collar voters and the soccer moms that Trump needs to be successful. “Suburban moms care about their kids, and with this economy we have kids moving out of parents’ basements and getting jobs” he said. “Whether they are buying houses or renting their own apartments, they are out of the home.”

The Trump campaign echoed that economic sentiment and offered a preview of its Wisconsin strategy in a statement to RCP. “President Trump remembered the forgotten men and women in Wisconsin who were entirely ignored by the Democrat Party,” said Trump national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

“He reversed President Obama's failed manufacturing jobs record, adding 473,000 manufacturing jobs in just two years compared to the 210,000 lost in Obama's two terms,” she added. “President Trump replaced the job-killing NAFTA with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a better deal that protects manufacturing jobs and secures greater access to Canada's dairy market for farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation. He continues to fight for farmers to gain access to new markets across the globe.”

It is an understandable argument for Republicans to make in a state with an unemployment rate below 3 percent. It is not so different from the pitch

Scott Walker hoped would carry him to a third term. The difference Republicans are counting on this time: a leftward lurch in the opposition party.  

“I think if the president is a little more moderated in his tone, that’s helpful,” Duffy said after emphasizing the humming economy. “On the flip side of that coin,” he continued, “I think the president is going to punch really hard at the extremism coming from the left.”

Yet Wisconsin’s progressive roots run deep. The Republican Party was formed there, in the town of Rippon in the mid-19th century – as a progressive party opposed to slavery. Later, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, a Wisconsin governor and senator who decided that the GOP had drifted from its liberal traditions, helped formed the Progressive Party. Wisconsin voted for Franklin Roosevelt the first three times he ran for president before becoming something of a bellwether state in the mid-20th century.

But in the run-up to the 2016 race, the Democratic nominee had carried Wisconsin in seven consecutive presidential elections. And even in the cliffhanger last time, progressives could hold their heads high: Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, had defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary. And Milwaukee has made three different socialists mayor.

All the same, Republicans argue that the current crop of candidates is too extreme — too far left, too anti-industry, too anti-agriculture — for the state. More than one expressed the hope that the Democrats will let Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic socialist who co-authored the Green New Deal, speak during the 2020 convention.

“You've got candidates talking about getting rid of cows,” Walker said in reference to the Ocasio-Cortez climate change legislation, which much of the 2020 crowd has already endorsed.

“That's kind of funny anywhere, but in Wisconsin messing with cows is not funny business,” he noted. “We’ve got an $80 billion agriculture industry and about half of that is dairy.”

This, then, is the Republican strategy in Wisconsin. Plug the economy. Paint the opposition as extreme. Hope, as Walker does, that after ignoring the state in 2016, Democrats’ bringing the convention to Milwaukee in 2020 will amount to “the ultimate overplay.” Bank on “radicalism coming to our backyard,” as Duffy does, energizing the GOP base.

Control of the White House, Republicans admit, could hinge on Trump hanging on in the state. “As Wisconsin went in 2016,” Johnson said, “so went the nation.”

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