It’s an unusual level of dysfunction for a state party that not so long ago was regarded as a model for conservatism nationally. And it may have disastrous implications for the party in the fall of what otherwise looks like a favorable 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 spend 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 primary 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 distinct 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 freezing 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.”
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 establishment 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 even despite them — Wisconsin Republicans would seem poised to benefit from a national climate that suggests 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 even 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 host, said, “there’s nothing that draws people to the Republican Party like watching Democrats run the ship.”
The history of midterm elections suggests 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.
On election fraud, which remains a top issue for Republican primary 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 primary. After it’s over, he said, “it’s going to be fine” — perhaps even helpful, if the possibility that Kleefisch could lose prevents Democrats from spending heavily against her before the primary.
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 hub 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 ripe target. But Johnson, the top Republican elected official in Wisconsin, polls even worse, and he is one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents up for reelection this year.
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 even 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 acknowledge that possibility at a Reagan Day Dinner in Milwaukee on Friday night. Regardless of what happens in the debate over voting rules, he told about 300 activists at a Radisson hotel, “We can’t afford to have anybody sit back and say, ‘Oh, my vote’s not going to count.’” Regardless of what happens in the primaries, he said, “The day after that primary, 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.”