Weeks before Tuesday’s spring election thrust Wisconsin into the national spotlight, the state’s Republican establishment was starting to sweat.
The election results ultimately would have them cheering. But weeks earlier, that outcome was far from assured.
In February and early March, businessman Donald Trump — viewed by many Wisconsin Republicans as an electoral albatross and deeply distrusted by many of the state’s prominent conservatives — was scoring surprising wins in early presidential states.
The February release of the respected Marquette Law School Poll showed Trump with a 10-point lead in the Wisconsin primary. It also showed Justice Rebecca Bradley, Gov. Scott Walker’s recent appointee and conservatives’ choice for a 10-year term on the high court, in a startling dead heat with the candidate favored by liberals, JoAnne Kloppenburg.
Wisconsin Republicans faced a grim scenario. The conservative majority on the state Supreme Court would narrow and their standard-bearer, Walker, would lose clout if his appointee was swept off the court.
In the presidential race, they fretted their state could back a candidate, in Trump, that many fear would splinter the conservative movement and hurt Republicans’ fortunes in November.
“Absolutely, there was some concern and anxiety that Trump was going to repeat in Wisconsin” his wins in other states, said Brian Fraley, a Wisconsin GOP strategist who supports Ted Cruz but has not worked for his campaign.
The results of Tuesday’s spring election, of course, were the opposite.
Cruz, aided by a timely winnowing of the GOP field and a Walker-led push to unite Republicans behind him, turned back Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The Cruz win seriously hurt Trump’s odds of locking up the Republican presidential nomination before the party’s national convention in July.
And Bradley beat Kloppenburg, cementing a conservative super-majority on Wisconsin’s high court.
Wisconsin Republicans swung the public-opinion needle sharply in both races in a few weeks. The formula employed in other recent elections — Walker front and center, conservative talk radio marshaling support in the eastern half of the state, and a healthy GOP advantage in campaign spending by outside groups — worked once more.
The anti-establishment tsunami that turned conservatives against their leaders elsewhere failed to land on Wisconsin’s shores. It was reassuring for a GOP axis that hopes to put the state in play for its presidential nominee this fall, re-elect U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and potentially re-elect Walker to a third term in 2018.
Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes likened the experience to “getting the band back together.”
“What happened (Tuesday) was: ‘OK. We’re back,’” Sykes said in an interview. “’We can still do this.’”
‘Nothing inevitable about this’
The heartburn of early 2016 compounded what had been a politically tumultuous 2015 for Wisconsin Republicans.
Walker’s approval rating plunged during his failed presidential run, and GOP state lawmakers struggled to complete what polls showed was an unpopular state budget.
Then came Trump’s surge and the troubling poll numbers. The cumulative effect had some wondering whether Wisconsin Republicans’ hot streak in statewide elections was nearing an end.
The results of the February spring primary, in which Bradley was virtually tied with Kloppenburg, also were “a wake-up call,” said Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, a leading conservative Christian group in the state.
“I think conservatives around the state said: “Wow! We better regroup,’” Appling said.
In the presidential race, many Badger State Republicans watched Trump’s rise with dismay. Trump has support from some in Wisconsin’s conservative grassroots, especially in northern and western Wisconsin. But he is almost universally disliked among its Republican establishment and influential conservative media.
The favorite choice of many establishment Republicans in Wisconsin, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, ended his campaign on March 15 after losing his home state of Florida.
It was a letdown for Rubio supporters. But his and neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s departures also winnowed the field, making it easier for anti-Trump Republicans in Wisconsin to coalesce behind one candidate.
Sykes and others began nudging Republicans, especially those who formerly backed Rubio, toward Cruz. But the fiery, uncompromising southerner was hardly a natural fit for Wisconsin.
“The big question was, would people be willing and able to make that switch” to Cruz, Sykes said. “There was nothing inevitable about this.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a leading Rubio supporter, announced on March 25 that he was switching his allegiance to Cruz. Vos, R-Rochester, said that many voters made a practical decision to back Cruz to halt Trump — which he called “a sign of sophistication among GOP voters.”
“I think it’s fair to say it was more of an anti-Trump vote” than pro-Cruz, Vos said.
National forces hone in
National forces that opposed Trump began to hone in on Wisconsin. Two outside groups, Our Principles PAC and Club for Growth PAC, made seven-figure ad buys to hammer Trump on the airwaves.
Kasich also was a factor. He had support from one of Wisconsin’s most widely known Republicans, former Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin GOP consultant and Thompson’s former chief of staff, said Cruz siphoned support from some who might otherwise have backed Kasich. A Club for Growth TV ad, which argued Kasich could not mathematically win the nomination, was particularly effective, McCoshen said.
Fraley said a key moment for Cruz was his first appearance in Wisconsin before the primary: an on-stage interview with Sykes at a Pewaukee country club. In the friendly room filled with conservative activists, Cruz shined.
“I left that night thinking: ‘He could do this,’” Fraley said.
Appling said Cruz benefited from what she called an “unprecedented” effort to enlist more than 100 Wisconsin pastors to endorse him. He got endorsements from the political action committee operated by Appling’s group and from Wisconsin Right to Life, a leading anti-abortion group.
The results of that are borne out in at least one poll suggesting Cruz overwhelmingly won evangelical voters.
Meanwhile, Trump committed a string of unforced errors. He seemed caught off-guard by a live radio interview with Sykes in which the host challenged him for his crass rhetoric and inconsistent conservatism.
Sykes said in the interview he never expected Trump to come on his show. When Trump agreed to, the questioning in the interview, which gained Sykes national attention, came easily, he said.
“All I was doing was replaying what I’ve been thinking in my head for the last six months,” Sykes said.
Trump mocked Cruz’s wife on social media, which Appling said offended many religious conservatives. And he ridiculed Walker for his showing in the presidential race and his management of the state, which Fraley said backfired with many Republicans who backed Walker in three statewide elections from 2010 to 2014 — including a volatile recall.
The same day Trump publicly assailed Walker, March 29, Walker endorsed Cruz. Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin GOP strategist not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns, said that all but sealed the outcome with a week remaining until election day.
“If anybody was on the ledge, that was the push they needed to get off,” Scholz said.
Cruz and Bradley benefited from a Republican and conservative political infrastructure that is remarkably battle-tested, said Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based director of American Majority, a national group that trains conservative candidates and activists.
Recall elections after the passage of the Act 10 collective bargaining law and the sharply contested 2014 election have molded what Fraley described as “a turn-key operation” of Republicans and conservatives ready to campaign.
“In Wisconsin, your average activist has had to step up to the plate time and time again,” Batzel said.
A money advantage was a big help. Club for Growth and Our Principles spent about $3 million combined on anti-Trump ads, according to statements from the groups.
In the state Supreme Court race, outside groups backing Bradley were estimated to have spent nearly four times as much as groups backing Kloppenburg.
But another factor, Scholz said, is the cohesiveness among Wisconsin Republicans. Republicans in other states have been riven by an establishment-versus-anti-establishment dynamic that aided Trump’s rise. That hasn’t unfolded with comparable intensity in the Badger State, Scholz said — a fact for which he said Walker deserves credit.
In December, U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, became a leader in the anti-Trump faction of the GOP by publicly saying he would not support Trump even if he became the party’s nominee.
Ribble said last week that Trump’s campaign “misjudged how tight-knit” Republicans in Wisconsin have become during the political battles of recent years.
“When they need to pull together,” Ribble said, “they’re able to do so.”
“I think conservatives around the state said: ‘Wow! We better regroup.’” Julaine Appling, Wisconsin Family Action, on Justice Rebecca Bradley’s disappointing primary performance