The national media smelled blood during those days, and it soaked their headlines. “Tea Party candidates could play spoiler role, says poll,” CNN had warned weeks earlier.
Delighted Democrats — and many fearful Republicans — were sure the scene in Wisconsin was a sign of such trouble, watching as banners declaring “Liberty or Death” and “SOCIALISM” flapped in a hard wind. They noted the crowd booing not only liberals but also former president George W. Bush and mainstream Republicans. It was exactly the kind of division that political opponents could exploit in the fall, and in the meantime speculation was surging by the minute that Wisconsin Republicans were walking into bruising primaries for both governor and U.S. Senate.
But despite the bloody headlines and raucous scene, the Wisconsin conservative movement wasn’t bleeding — it was walking on the knife’s edge, working to build a winning coalition. In fact, according to numerous activists and organizers involved, while other states tried to quell the grassroots unrest, the Republican Party of Wisconsin had systematically worked with conservative volunteers behind the scenes to build crowds like this across the state, going back at least a year. And among the many attendees were some of the biggest names in Wisconsin politics — both established and about to emerge — as well as activists, operatives, and thought leaders who would shape the movement.
That day at the capitol was a defining moment that demonstrates why the Wisconsin conservative movement was — and is — different. Where other political movements have fallen prey to division, Wisconsin conservatives have forged a striking unity — starting with the fusion of the grassroots and the establishment, and then extending to a broader conservative infrastructure that enabled it to defy false choices and compete in a closely divided state. The result produced more conservative reform and national political leadership than any other state in the union in the past ten years — from Priebus’s rise atop the national party to Paul Ryan becoming speaker of the U.S. House to Scott Walker’s crush of conservative reform — and helped establish the once-blue Badger State as the top 2020 battleground with upsets by U.S. senator Ron Johnson and others.
“We had to win together,” Priebus says in an interview. “You can’t grow a party by subtracting people out of the room.”
I’ve worked in and around the Wisconsin conservative movement off and on for more than a decade, and to pinpoint the source of its strength — and where it’s going — I talked with more than two dozen insiders in search of the unknown moments behind the famous fights that captured the nation’s attention. From independent analysts to grassroots activists to some of the biggest names in conservative politics (including current and former officials with every major state and national party committee), the theme of uncommon unity was consistent. It made grassroots energy not blood on the establishment floor but the crucial lifeblood of a living, breathing political movement — and built the network of candidates, party organizations, conservative media, and center-right groups necessary to forge a national model for conservatives and a swing-state travesty for liberals.
“It is this meeting of the people, and the moment, and the preparation that went into it,” says prominent Wisconsin pollster Charles Franklin.
There is honest disagreement about how well this unity has held at various points — including divisive primaries and devastating defeats — and on who gets the credit or blame. But the unity in contrast to other states is clear. And whether 2020 is defined by the economy, COVID-19, race, or other issues, Wisconsin has become the center of the political map — crucial to President Trump’s reelection, and so coveted by the Democrats that they chose it for their (now virtual) convention.
How it happened in Wisconsin offers lessons — for any political movement — that will far outlast the results this November.
A battleground beneath the surface
If our two modern political parties birthed a battleground state, Wisconsin would be it — home to the “Progressive” tradition that Democrats claim and to the first Republican Party meeting, in Ripon in 1854, to which conservatives trace their heritage. But Wisconsin didn’t look that way when Tommy Thompson traveled the state as a young state legislator looking for a winning coalition.
Mostly it was empty tables.
“The Republican Party was such a minority party back in the ’70s and early ’80s that they couldn’t get anybody to come to their events,” says the former governor.
Down in Waukesha County, Jim Sensenbrenner was encountering a similar problem. Back then many of the elected officials in Waukesha County — now part of a traditional Republican power base — were Democrats, and Sensenbrenner says many of the Republicans were “go along to get along” types, aiding the liberals in Madison.
“Once I was elected, I decided that the time had come to change things,” he says.
This is when Wisconsin’s fight for true battleground status began beneath the surface — with grassroots organizing to first give conservatives the spirit to win and then create a stronger local party structure to do it. Sensenbrenner was elected to the state legislature and then to Congress, and he recalled the pair plotting key elements of what Thompson called his statewide “coalition of like-minded individuals” at Sensenbrenner’s rough-hewn cabin, tucked in the woods overlooking Pine Lake.
The potential was always there — and likely created competitive pressure as the parties gradually shifted to today’s urban–rural divide. “Wisconsin is a combination of a couple of urban and educated suburban areas, and large swatches of rural territory,” Inside Elections editor and publisher Nathan Gonzales says. “That is the recipe for a battleground.”
Thompson won an unprecedented four terms as governor, but he was the exception to liberal rule, with Democrats holding the Legislature and much of the congressional delegation for most of that time. So Republican operatives began in the ’90s to focus on new strategies — and greater unity — to win more legislative seats.
Then Karl Rove took notice of Wisconsin. Numerous operatives and activists from that time — including state representative Scott Walker — remember buttonholing George W. Bush’s political architect to suggest he bring his candidate and cash to Wisconsin. Bush lost the state by just 0.22 percent in 2000 and 0.4 percent in 2004. While the national media left Wisconsin branded a “blue state,” Wisconsinites knew better.
“Wisconsin was a more viable pick than a lot of people had thought,” says Walker, who had climbed up through the grassroots as GOP chairman for his congressional district before winning elected office. (Note: I started my experience with the movement around this time as a journalist, then later worked as a campaign aide to Johnson in 2016, Walker in 2018, and the state party. The consulting company I now manage is active in the center-right world and still works with Walker on some of his nonpartisan projects.)
Conservatives emerged from 2004 with a formidable grassroots organization capable of activating volunteers to turn out voters. “As we’ve seen in Wisconsin, that is incredibly significant, worth every penny,” says Mark Graul, Bush’s 2004 state director.
The investment wouldn’t pay off fully until Barack Obama’s decisive 2008 win demonstrated that Wisconsin conservatives had little else to back up the grassroots. That’s when Wisconsin operatives quietly conducted an internal study at the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, in the hopes of demonstrating the need for a broader infrastructure to donors. The report laid bare a stark contrast: Liberals had 29 organizations spreading their message (conservatives had eleven), five think tanks creating “intellectual ammunition” (conservatives had one), and five groups pursuing litigation (conservatives had one). “It was stunning,” says former assembly speaker Scott Jensen, who authored the report.
They could not have envisioned the explosive success to come.
Ron Johnson didn’t bring poll-tested talking points when he stepped up to the microphone — just remarks he’d written himself, practiced in his kitchen. The thousands at the April 2010 Tea Party rally would serve as Johnson’s focus group.
“Good morning fellow patriots!”
The crowd roared as Johnson talked about the need to fight for freedom. Another crowd favorite, Milwaukee County executive Scott Walker, recalls spending his time down in the crowd, shaking every liberty-loving hand he could. Both men would ride the Tea Party wave — Johnson a newcomer bursting forth from the movement to run for U.S. Senate, Walker having climbed up through it to run for governor — and would personify the difference between how Wisconsin Republicans and those in other states handled grassroots anger.
Years later, Johnson calls Wisconsin Republicans then and now “rabble-rousers” who pursue “trickle-up elections, not trickle-down” — driven by county parties, not Washington wise men. “That’s been the hallmark,” Johnson says. “You ignore consultants at your own peril, but you over-rely on them at your own peril, too.”
The Tea Party hallmark in other states was political civil war. In little more than two weeks, the Utah Republican and legendary U.S. senator Bob Bennett would lose his party’s nomination, making way for Mike Lee. Before the month was out, Florida governor Charlie Crist would flee the Republican Party altogether in an ill-fated attempt to win a U.S. Senate seat as an independent, rather than face Marco Rubio in a primary. Republicans in other states were either selecting or snuffing out unelectable candidates.
But Wisconsin conservatives understood that grassroots energy could activate volunteers, awaken like-minded citizens, and provide once-in-a-generation candidates to sustain a political movement. With outrage at big government in Madison and Washington in the wake of the Great Recession at its height, the time had come.
Speakers that day demonstrated grassroots devotion across the Wisconsin Republican spectrum. Former governor Thompson announced he would not run for Senate, but unlike other politicians from more bipartisan times, he still took the podium for a rousing speech to help build the coalition. Another notable attendee was a young conservative prosecutor from the Northwoods named Sean Duffy, who was running for Congress.
Kathy Kiernan, a long-time grassroots leader, remembers thinking she wasn’t alone as she met Duffy on her walk back to the buses that had brought conservatives pouring into the city: “They were from everywhere.”
Wisconsin has seen spirited primaries — for governor and Senate in 2010, Senate in 2012, and Senate in 2018 — but they never reached the level of discord of other states. In 2010, Walker and Johnson largely consolidated the Tea Party, shortening their primaries in part by winning the endorsement of hundreds of grassroots activists at the Republican Party of Wisconsin convention. The 2012 and 2018 primaries were more taxing, but there were no holdout candidates refusing to endorse the nominee, as happened elsewhere over the years.
The 2010 results were striking even by midterm-wave standards. Voters elected a rock-ribbed conservative governor (Walker) and U.S. senator (Johnson), reelected Republican attorney general J. B. Van Hollen, took the majority in their congressional delegation, and won deep legislative majorities — including the defeat of the Democrats’ legislative leaders.
“We had a common enemy,” says Michelle Litjens, who helped recruit Johnson and won an assembly seat. “We were very much a grassroots group.”
Some in the Tea Party (a diffuse bunch, after all) felt Republicans had “co-opted” them, but conservatives remained largely unified. Mark Block, then head of Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin — who with Linda Hansen had organized the massive 2010 Tea Party rallies — puts it plainly: “If we don’t play well in the sandbox, we’re not gonna win.”
The tests of that unity were only beginning.
An era of upsets
In July of 2016, state-party operatives planted a small experiment in an internal voter survey as they modeled the electorate. By now Wisconsin’s conservative movement was in finely tuned fighting shape, but the results were still shocking: 52 percent of swing voters supported “radical change.”
“That certainly was an eye-opener,” says Brian Kind, the Republican data consultant who predicted some of the biggest upsets of the era. “We threw that in there . . . thinking it would be an outlier.”
The conclusion: Swing voters weren’t mushy voters mired in the middle; they were angry enough to blow anything “political” out of the water. These previously unreported numbers foretold the 2016 election result, but they also revealed an increasingly extreme version of a shift that Wisconsin Republicans had been capitalizing on ever since 2010 — the idea that you could appeal to swing voters by taking on the status quo, rather than choose between your principles and political victory to persuade “the middle.”
This showcases how Wisconsin Republicans grew into a conservative juggernaut: by rejecting the false choices that have doomed political movements and presidential campaigns alike. Wisconsin’s vault to national prominence is well known, but it’s the moments of hope amid doubt unknown by the entire political world — like that April 2016 survey result — that are truly revealing. Learning from their success in fusing the grassroots and establishment rather than choosing between them, Wisconsin conservatives rejected other false choices: the base vs. swing voters, principles vs. broad appeal, retail politics vs. data.
It was the next level of boldness, which activists and operatives say grew out the unity needed to compete in an emerging 50–50 state. It played nationally, too.
In January of 2011, Priebus won the Republican National Committee chairmanship on uniting the party — what he calls the “Wisconsin model.” Meanwhile, a young congressman from Janesville named Paul Ryan had long been rejecting the false choice between conservative policy and “serious” legislating. The congressman wrote his own budget, which originally got only a few co-sponsors, but in the new majority he became the House’s conservative thought leader.
“He really felt that, as opposed to just railing against other peoples’ solutions, Republicans should put forward ideas of their own,” longtime adviser Kevin Seifert says.
Perhaps the most famous false choice came when newly elected Governor Walker faced either raising taxes (and breaking a campaign promise) or mass layoffs (and breaking another campaign promise) to balance the budget. Instead, he famously pursued collective-bargaining reform, detonating a bomb that made Wisconsin the center of the political world.
“I mean, when [MSNBC host] Ed Schultz moves to Madison?” says recall-era state-party executive director Stephan Thompson. “It was bizarre.”
It was also serious, as thousands of liberal protesters stormed the capitol — dwarfing 2010’s Tea Party rallies and fueling a recall effort that put Walker’s job and the conservative movement’s momentum on the line. Walker remembers one particular troop of protesters, marching around the capitol to the militant rattle and snap of a snare drum.
“I’m sure before, in other states, that kind of intimidation worked,” he says. “It didn’t work for us.”
His fate remained dire to the end — several people with knowledge of the situation say internal polling showed a razor-thin race up until the June 5 election. But the governor and his closest advisers knew something was happening — a month earlier, in the recall primary, Walker had drawn more votes than the top two Democrats had in their own wide-open contest. He won the recall in an upset that galvanized conservatives and showed that swing voters reward promises kept.
Prominent talk-radio host Jay Weber, one of several who have helped build the movement, says that has paid dividends: “I knew we had something special when they didn’t back down.”
When Ryan became the 2012 vice presidential nominee, it established the nationally prominent trio: Ryan, Walker, and Priebus. As Wisconsin’s prominence grew, so did the chance to shape the movement — operatives recalled not only media attention and donors, but less obvious examples, such as Wisconsin attorneys being summoned to meetings formulating litigation against the Obama administration.
Wisconsin Republicans were reaching full strength with a bigger base of support, a flood of voter data, an unprecedented fundraising machine, a raft of center-right think tanks and pro-business groups fostering ongoing reform, and a hand in the national movement. Walker’s team spent the early part of the 2014 cycle — when he would win again, for actual reelection — professionalizing recall tactics such as year-round field offices.
The momentum was blunted when Walker’s breakout presidential run stalled in September of 2015 as Donald Trump defeated candidate after candidate, but Walker still exemplified how to reject the false choice between being conservative and getting things done. Ryan embodied it a month later when he became House speaker, the only figure who could unite conservatives and the establishment.
There was another seemingly insurmountable challenge looming. Still little known with so much of the Wisconsin conversation dominated by other Republicans, U.S. senator Johnson faced a double-digit deficit in the polls when his vanquished 2010 foe, longtime U.S. senator Russ Feingold, entered the race for a 2016 rematch boasting high name ID and a massive fundraising operation.
This is when Wisconsin conservatives rejected another false choice: between speaking your mind and getting elected. One Washington Republican summed up the sentiment with advice he gave me when I became Johnson’s communications director: “Put him in a hole between now and November.”
It was a reference to Johnson’s blunt statements that frequently caused a stir with the press, but it missed a fundamental truth that Johnson’s team understood — voters were as fed up with politics as he was. His authenticity allowed him to run as an outsider working to get things done, against a career politician pining for Washington.
The gamble grew when Donald Trump became the Republican nominee. Sometimes lost amid the drama — from media outrage to Never Trump tussles to predictions of a Clinton landslide — was the fact that the conservative grassroots were rallying around Trump’s own brand of blunt talk.
There was a path. Johnson, like Walker, brought a strong base of support from the suburban “WOW” counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington), including traditional Republicans initially unsure of Trump, and had been working on rural areas that had supported Republicans in the recall. Now Johnson had to continue growing rural support, where Trump was surging, and help shore up the WOW counties.
By summer of 2016 it was clear on the ground that Johnson had tapped into something. At one parade in Phillips, a tiny northern town that was not normally much of a Republican target, people thronged the sidewalk and charged into the street to shake Johnson’s hand. Windows bore handwritten “God Bless Ron Johnson” signs as men yelled in the streets:
“Give ’em hell, Ron!”
The D.C. money pulled out in August, before Johnson’s momentum kicked in. He notched a three-point win in what he still calls a “hell ride” four years later. Returns showed he ran ahead of the national ticket and earned the most votes of any Republican in state history.
It meant the Wisconsin conservative movement had not only reelected its straight-talking senator in an upset but had also helped deliver the presidency — giving Speaker Ryan unified Republican government and Priebus a turn as White House chief of staff.
The tests to come
On April 11, 2018, Speaker Ryan announced his retirement. The media promptly declared the end of the Wisconsin Republican reign in the Trump era — Priebus was out of the White House, Walker was running for a third term in a tough year, and Democrats were hyping their shot at taking Ryan’s seat, Republican but now open, with star recruit “Ironstache” Randy Bryce.
It was true that Wisconsin conservatives had lost historic leadership, but, as always, the truth was more complicated. And the pundits didn’t know Bryan Steil.
The Janesville boy had been a grassroots activist for years and had worked as an attorney for area manufacturers. Now, while the media speculated on the Republican primary, Steil rifled through phone calls to earn the support of key conservatives he would need to clear the field. In between calls, he honed his message on scraps of paper in his living room.
Steil beat Bryce by 12 points, no small feat as Democrats took the U.S. House and every statewide Wisconsin office on the ballot. The moment exemplifies Wisconsin conservatives’ current status and ongoing dilemmas — a natural changing of the guard and a mixed bag of electoral results, tempered by an ongoing ability to produce new leaders.
“In some ways, we’ve come back to where we started,” Steil says. “We’re going to need to ramp back up in Wisconsin again.”
What happened in 2018 offers lessons for the path forward, and how well they’re learned could decide the country’s direction this November. According to an Inside Elections analysis of results from 2012 to 2018 — a more durable measure than ever-changing polls — Wisconsin is mathematically the most evenly divided state in America.
There are myriad theories among conservatives about what happened in 2018, particularly Walker’s narrow loss. There’s general agreement that the environment deeply favored Democrats, as usually happens for the party out of power in a midterm year, and that the Republicans’ winning coalition stumbled.
Data show that suburbs, which have been turning against Republicans nationwide, did so in Wisconsin, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. Some conservatives say that’s a good sign in tough times and think Wisconsin Republicans can win them back — either in future cycles or this year with the right strategy. Others think 2018 showed a broken coalition.
Franklin, the Marquette pollster, says that in addition to education and health care turning swing voters against Republicans, there were signs that conservative unity had faltered after eight years in power and two years without Obama to battle. Media coverage of conservatives jockeying over policy priorities or who was a bigger Trump supporter was on the rise. Among Republicans, operatives felt the base fell asleep with less to fight for, while the grassroots felt campaigns weren’t engaging them like before.
Evidence also remains that Wisconsin conservatives continue to punch above their weight.
While Republicans in other 2016 Trump-upset states lost by large statewide margins in 2018 and saw their legislative majorities narrowed, in Wisconsin Walker lost by 1 point and Republicans essentially maintained their majorities. And conservatives have regained striking unity — roaring back with an upset in April 2019 that strengthened the Supreme Court majority of judicial conservatives and cheering seasoned legislative leadership for stymieing Democrats’ priorities.
Party chairman Andrew Hitt, who is working with veteran executive director Mark Jefferson to rebuild, says Republicans still draw from their prior leaders’ success.
“We had exceptional people that worked exceptionally hard. . . . You have so many people that were in their orbit that are now coming up,” Hitt says.
The infrastructure of center-right groups also remains in place, and there is no shortage of potential candidates to help chart the future. Inside Elections’ Gonzales says 2020 results will be determinative, given President Trump’s dominant role in reshaping Republican politics.
Steil says Republicans can win by pushing back against a liberal agenda in Madison (and the U.S. House) in the midst of an economic downturn. And a party that has long abandoned liberal meccas Dane and Milwaukee counties now has more candidates running there, including Orlando Owens. The long-time organizer in the black community says Republicans need to “grow the tent” to win in places such as his eleventh assembly district and blunt Democrats’ advantage with minority voters.
“You gotta have candidates who match the district,” he says.
State representative Mary Felzkowski, a Northwoods candidate for state senate who is widely considered a rising star, says there’s a chance — and a need — to win not only rural areas but also suburban women leaving the party, in 2020 and beyond.
The path that Battleground Wisconsin conservatives agree on: a unified movement that both harnesses grassroots energy and effectively messages to swing voters. Felzkowski notes that this is easier said than done: “People vote for people who work.”
Here in Wisconsin, that’s still a familiar thing.