MADISON, Wis. — Today, the Cap Times profiled how disastrously out-of-touch the Wisconsin GOP is with hardworking Wisconsinites, and how the party is unwilling to abandon their ultra-MAGA beliefs even in the face of resounding election losses and rejection from Wisconsin voters.
Having lost 15 of the last 18 statewide elections, the Wisconsin GOP seems unprepared for any sort of introspection. At their convention this month, GOP faithful approved a series of resolutions backing profoundly unpopular policies in the Badger State, including resolutions to enforce Wisconsin’s archaic 1849 criminal abortion ban, roll back early voting, and arm school teachers with guns.
As far as future elections go, the outlook appears grim for the Wisconsin GOP. The field of potential GOP Senate challengers includes several election deniers and conspiracy theorists, right-wing megadonors, and out-of-state millionaires who can’t hold a candle to Senator Tammy Baldwin’s record of working hard for the people of Wisconsin. While Wisconsin Republicans continue to move to the far-right, Wisconsin Democrats are committed to our shared Wisconsin values and to building a stronger and more equitable Wisconsin.
A brutal record in statewide elections over the last six years has Wisconsin Republicans searching for ways to win again.
Between 2018 and now, Democrats have won all but three statewide races, allowing them to stifle large Republican majorities in the Legislature that went virtually unchecked for eight years. Another walloping in April, in a race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, could threaten GOP control of the legislative branch altogether.
But as Republicans in Wisconsin grapple with what to focus on in 2024 and beyond, a disconnect has emerged between GOP leaders and the party’s grassroots.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Republican Party of Wisconsin Chairman Brian Schimming are now advocating for early voting, which they say will help candidates “bank” votes before Election Day. Others, like U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, say the party needs to start showing up in areas it has conceded to Democrats in recent elections, including Madison. And in interviews with the Cap Times, almost all Republican leaders and operatives agreed the GOP needs to move past old issues and grievances that arguably cost them recent elections and sell voters on a vision for a more prosperous future.
But gathered in La Crosse earlier this month for their state party’s annual convention, delegates representing local GOP chapters from Wisconsin’s 72 counties overwhelmingly embraced a platform inspired by Trumpism, akin to ideas that have failed the party in recent elections and would continue to put it at odds with many swing voters.
In a series of non-binding resolutions, the Republican delegates advocated for, among other causes, enforcing the state’s 174-year-old abortion ban, stomping out early voting, building a border wall, ending vaccine mandates, curbing the authority of public health officials, arming school teachers with guns and abolishing the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
While Republican operatives publicly remain bullish about the party’s chances in 2024 — rooted in President Joe Biden’s unpopularity — some admit in private that the party is struggling to find a message that can string together a fragile, winning coalition of voters, especially as the base of the party remains fixated on issues seemingly unpalatable to many of Wisconsin’s independent voters. As one long-time GOP operative in Wisconsin described it to the Cap Times, Republicans in the state are “in the wilderness” right now, and they lack a clear path back to winning ways.
If they don’t get back on track, Republicans could risk the rollback of a decade’s worth of conservative victories. A looming liberal state Supreme Court already puts pressure on some of those wins — including GOP-friendly voting districts — and a few more election cycles of Democratic dominance statewide could crack other pillars of the Wisconsin conservative movement.
But winning isn’t easy. So how, then, do Republicans start triumphing statewide again? It depends who you ask.
A decade ago, Wisconsin Republicans were on a roll. Sure, former President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, both Democrats, triumphed here in 2012, but Republicans had almost total control of Wisconsin government. Scott Walker occupied the governor’s mansion (and survived a recall election earlier in 2012 by a comfortable margin), J.B. Van Hollen sat in the attorney general’s office and Kurt Schuller had two years prior toppled a Democratic incumbent to become the state treasurer. Plus a recently drawn set of legislative districts, which featured an extreme — and effective — partisan gerrymander, had helped the GOP lock in large majorities in the Legislature.
The GOP trifecta implemented a conservative agenda in Wisconsin that was billed by Republicans nationwide as an example to follow. They pushed through Act 10 — which kneecapped public sector labor unions — passed sizable tax cuts, expanded private school vouchers, froze tuition on UW System campuses and passed a series of bills tightening voting laws.
In 2014, Republicans once again cruised to victory in all but one statewide race, and in 2016, Donald Trump shocked people both in Wisconsin and across the United States when he edged Hillary Clinton to secure the state’s 10 electoral votes.
In 2018, things started to change. Gov. Tony Evers ousted Walker. Attorney General Josh Kaul beat the incumbent Republican, Brad Schimel. Sarah Godlewski won back the treasurer’s office for Democrats. And long-time Secretary of State Doug La Follette once again won reelection.
Democrats (and Democratic-backed candidates) have cleaned up in recent years. Between 2018 and now, they’ve won two governor’s races, two lieutenant governor’s races, two races for attorney general, two secretary of state races, a state treasurer’s race, three Wisconsin Supreme Court races, a race for superintendent of public instruction, a U.S. Senate race and a presidential race.
By comparison, Republicans (and Republican-backed candidates) have succeeded just three times in statewide contests, capturing a state Supreme Court seat, the state treasurer’s office in 2022 and reelecting Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson last November.
Five years of Evers in the governor’s mansion has already stifled many conservative goals of the GOP-controlled Legislature, and a soon-to-be liberal majority on the state Supreme Court could threaten Republicans’ legislative majorities if the justices choose to revisit the state’s gerrymandered voting districts.
That new liberal majority, and hypothetical Democratic majorities in the Legislature, could roll back some of the cornerstone conservative policies Republicans have implemented in the last decade.
Democratic leaders and elected officials attribute their recent success to harmony among candidates, message discipline and a commitment to reaching out to voters across the state.
“The strength of Democrats in Wisconsin over the last six or seven years has come from unity around a set of values that aligned with the values of most Wisconsinites — around freedom, opportunity, fairness, dignity, equality — and alignment around our candidates, our strategies and our tactics,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin Democrats know that you have to show up and talk to people where they live and communicate with them about things they care about,” Wikler said.
The leader of the state Democratic Party said Democrats’ success has been fueled by being on the right side of issues. He pointed to healthcare in 2018, concerns about the durability of American democracy in 2020 and a desire to restore abortion access in 2022 as key issues in recent elections that earned Democrats support over their Republican opponents. (Money has also played a role. Since the start of 2018, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has out fundraised its Republican rival by more than $30 million, according to a tally from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit that tracks spending in the state’s elections.)
“If I were giving advice to the GOP, it’d be to take a long look in the mirror and ask, ‘Does the public have a point about wanting to have some freedom about their most personal and intimate decisions?’” Wikler said. “I think they have to reckon with that to be able to change their trajectory.”
State Sen. Kelda Roys, a Madison-area Democrat, offered a more wry answer when asked what she thought Republicans needed to do to change their fortunes in statewide races: “Be more like Democrats.”
In her mind, what does being more like Democrats mean? “Give a shit what people think,” Roys said. “Care about people.”
Despite recent setbacks at the ballot box, Republican leaders in the state say it isn’t time to hit the panic button. Still, there’s no consensus among Republican leaders and operatives on what needs to happen to start regularly winning statewide elections again.
“Republicans win when we offer a positive message with good ideas that resonate with the public,” Vos said.
“I’m not worried (about 2024). I think it’s going to be good.”
Tiffany, who represents Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House and is a potential Republican U.S. Senate candidate to challenge Tammy Baldwin next year, believes Wisconsin Republicans running for statewide office also need to be flexible when they’re on the campaign trail. He told the Cap Times that candidates need to recognize that different communities in the state have different needs, and candidates need to adjust their messaging depending on who they’re speaking to.
“I think you always try to customize your message to the region that you’re in,” Tiffany, whose district encompasses most of northern Wisconsin, said.
Republicans also need to show up in places where they’ve not performed well in recent years, he said. Take Dane County, for example — Tiffany said Republicans’ desires to address crime in cities can resonate in dark blue areas of the state, but only if they’re there to communicate their message with voters.
“Our message, I think, is a winning message. We just need to make sure we deliver it to them,” Tiffany said of reaching out to voters who normally wouldn’t support a Republican.
Eric Hovde, a conservative businessman who is also considering a run for the U.S. Senate, said for Republicans to consistently win again statewide, they need to start talking about solutions.
“I think, most importantly, you have to deliver a message that resonates with what the people of Wisconsin are looking for and bring solutions,” Hovde said in an interview at the Republican convention. “At the end of the day, you have to bring solutions to the problems.”
Hovde said that if he were to get into the race, he would focus his campaign on economic issues.
For all the talk from Republican leaders and would-be candidates of looking to the future and providing solutions to Wisconsinites’ problems, the die-hard, grassroots members of the state Republican Party seem focused on the past and present.
Delegates at the state party’s annual convention approved a series of non-binding resolutions focused on elections, abortion, gun rights, immigration and other topics that serve as a marker for where substantial portions of the Republican base stand on issues often found at the forefront of elections. The resolutions also reveal a disconnect between the public leaders of the state GOP and the members who are the lifeblood of the party, at least on some issues.
Take, for example, early voting. Schimming, Vos and even Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel have been preaching the need for Republican voters to cast their ballots early, something Vos and Schimming say will help their party’s candidates succeed. Delegates at the state party convention saw it differently. They overwhelmingly approved a resolution advocating for returning to “same-day, in-person voting with the only exceptions being absentee ballots issued for cause.”
Their justification for the resolution? At least in part, it was a partisan review of the state’s 2020 vote which was overseen by former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Gableman’s work revealed little new information about how the election was conducted and was deemed “bizarre” and “amateurish” by election administration experts. What’s more, his review cost Wisconsin taxpayers in the neighborhood of $2 million without producing any substantive findings that would change elections in the state.
Some differences on other issues, like abortion policy, also exist; though Republicans, by and large, remain opposed to abortion.
Vos and some other Republicans, seemingly recognizing that their party could need to soften its stance on abortion to win elections, in March proposed adding exceptions to the state’s near-total ban on abortion. The proposal, which drew ire from Wisconsin’s leading anti-abortion groups and was denounced by Democrats as an attempt to distract voters from April 4’s state Supreme Court election, where abortion access was a key issue, would have created exceptions for cases of rape and incest and further defined exemptions for medical emergencies.
Almost three months to the day later, the delegates in La Crosse approved a resolution that puts them at odds with most Wisconsinites on access to abortion. The convention vote followed pleas from a few delegates that the party needs to change its tone on abortion to win elections, as well as a handful of impassioned speeches from delegates who have experienced complicated pregnancies.
“The way that this (resolution) is written … I think it’s undoable in our state if we ever want to win elections again,” one delegate declared.
The resolution urges local governments and the state to “enforce Wisconsin’s 1849 Abortion law which bans abortion everywhere in Wisconsin.” It also urged lawmakers to pass “legislation to define the unborn baby as a legal person (Personhood) from fertilization on.”
A Marquette University Law School poll from August found 65% of Wisconsinites believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
The contrast in what party leaders and potential candidates are saying and what the party’s delegates — members of county parties who are often most passionate about elections — want highlights the complicated path forward Republicans face. How do you sell independent voters on a vision that not all Republicans believe in?
Finding the right message to string together a complicated coalition of rural voters in western and northern Wisconsin and suburban voters in southeastern Wisconsin will be critical to any Republican trying to win a statewide race, according to election analysts that closely watch Wisconsin races. But Republicans are still searching for that message, and that was clear from the Cap Times’ conversations with Republican officials at their annual convention in La Crosse.
Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor and director of the university’s Elections Research Center, has also picked up on the party’s messaging dilemma, telling the Cap Times that Republicans “are struggling to find a portfolio of issues that are going to work for them.”
He noted that in 2022, Republicans focused their messaging on crime and inflation, two issues that seemed to lack staying power with voters compared with abortion policy. He added, “It does seem like Republicans right now don’t have the issues they need to be the vehicles to victory.”