Republicans wince at Wisconsin GOP crack-up

Republicans wince at Wisconsin GOP crack-up

Several county parties have called on the state’s longtime Republican Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, to resign. Andy Manis/AP Photo

It’s an uncommon level of dysfunction for a state party that not so long ago was regarded as a form for conservatism nationally. And it may have disastrous implications for the party in the fall of what otherwise looks like a popular year for Republicans across the electoral map, undercutting fundraising and turnout efforts in the GOP’s bid to reelect Sen. Ron Johnson and to unseat the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers.

“We’re going to use millions of dollars tearing ourselves apart,” said Jack Yuds, chair of the Dodge County GOP, while Evers “is going to be sitting on millions of dollars” to use against the Republican nominee in November.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “We’ve got to focus the group.”

The upheaval in Wisconsin is, in part, a reflection of dominant politics that are unusually contentious nearly everywhere this year. And it’s an expression of near-universal anger among rank-and-file Republicans about Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. But the rancor in Wisconsin is definite in one important way. Unlike in some other states, such as Georgia and Arizona, activists here are not only repudiating their party’s entrenched elected officials, but the actual party itself.

“People are pissed,” said Terry Brand, the chair of the Republican Party in rural Langlade County.

The signs of discontent are hard to miss. On Saturday, activists wearing heavy coats and fur-lined hats in the halting cold held signs that read “Decertify Now!” and “Toss Vos” outside a county Republican Party meeting in Waukesha, a GOP stronghold in the suburbs of Milwaukee.

In Iowa County, west of Madison, the local Republican Party’s own social media offerings last week featured a warning that “GOP leaders are making a grave mistake if they continue to refuse to listen to their constituents,” with voters “who either ARE DETERMINED not to vote in upcoming elections (if the situation remains unchanged in terms of fixing the problems that occurred in the 2020 election) or who will not vote for any of the current Republican leadership who refuse to address the people’s concerns about election integrity.”

Kevin Nicholson is openly warring with the state party, casting its chair as part of a “broken machine.” Scott Bauer, File/AP Photo

And at a Milwaukee County Republican Party caucus over the weekend, Nicholson, a former Democrat and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, derided what he called “the Madison-based political machine that runs the Republican Party and has lost, now, 11 out of 12 statewide general elections.”

The animosity is so pitched that if state party endorsements do go forward, said Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin-based Republican strategist, “in some ways, it could be the kiss of death because the candidate who wins that [endorsement] could become the formation candidate or the insider, and that’s what the base is against.”

He said, “In any normal year, winning the party endorsement would be a great thing. … Not here.”

If not for their internal fissures — and perhaps already despite them — Wisconsin Republicans would seem poised to assistance from a national climate that indicates big gains for the GOP. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings — a metric closely tied to a party’s performance in the midterms — have fallen below 42 percent, and already Democrats widely expect to lose the House. At the county GOP gathering in Milwaukee on Saturday, Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), paraphrasing a conservative Wisconsin radio show great number, said, “there’s nothing that draws people to the Republican Party like watching Democrats run the ship.”

The history of midterm elections indicates that’s true. And it’s what Republicans are banking on. Before Steil spoke, Rebecca Kleefisch, the former lieutenant governor who is widely considered the favorite to win the nomination for governor, ripped into Evers’ “terrible” record, chastising the governor and Democrats on issues ranging from inflation and education policy to vaccine mandates and crime.

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is widely considered the favorite to win the nomination for governor. Morry Gash, File/AP Photo

On election fraud, which remains a top issue for Republican dominant voters, Kleefisch is attempting to walk the same line that many traditional Republicans are — focusing on voting restrictions that can be enacted for future elections, like banning ballot drop boxes, while hedging on what happened in 2020. After agreeing last year that Biden had won Wisconsin, Kleefisch dodged the question in a radio interview last week.

Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who endorsed Kleefisch last week, dismissed fractures within the party as a natural reflection of a competitive dominant. After it’s over, he said, “it’s going to be fine” — perhaps already helpful, if the possibility that Kleefisch could lose prevents Democrats from spending heavily against her before the dominant.

But the state party is not what it was when Walker was governor. Back then, Walker was widely admired by Republicans across the nation, Paul Ryan was House speaker and Reince Priebus, the former state party chair, ran the national GOP.

For years, culminating with Trump’s upset of Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016, Wisconsin operated as a political center of the national party. Today — after losing the governorship in 2018, then the presidential race two years later — it has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Evers, whose public approval slid last year, is a mature target. But Johnson, the top Republican elected official in Wisconsin, surveys already worse, and he is one of the most unprotected Senate incumbents up for reelection this year.

Republicans are cognizant of the risk to Sen. Ron Johnson in his bid to unseat the state’s Democratic governor. Toni Sandys-Pool/Getty Images

Republicans are cognizant of the risk to Johnson and Kleefisch — and the possibility that a red wave, if it does materialize, could pass Wisconsin by. If already a sliver of Republican voters stay home in the general election — turned off by baseless claims about rigged elections, as they were in the Georgia Senate runoffs last year, or by party infighting — the damage could be costly.

Johnson himself appeared to concede that possibility at a Reagan Day Dinner in Milwaukee on Friday night. in spite of of what happens in the argue over voting rules, he told about 300 activists at a Radisson hotel, “We can’t provide to have anybody sit back and say, ‘Oh, my vote’s not going to count.’” in spite of of what happens in the primaries, he said, “The day after that dominant, we’ve got to come together.”

Sitting in the back of a packed ballroom as heavy snow fell outside, Scott Woiak, a conservative who served as a poll watcher in Milwaukee County in 2020, shrugged.

“They always have to say that,” Woiak said. “I don’t know if it can be done.”

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