WISCONSIN DELLS, WISCONSIN — If one state can claim the title of putting President Trump in the White House, it would have to be Wisconsin. Trump won Wisconsin and two other states by less than a percentage point in November, but only Wisconsin broke a 32-year streak of voting for the Democratic presidential nominee.
And if one state can prove Trump’s surprise electoral win could happen again, it’s Wisconsin.
Here, the battle for the ideologically eclectic Trump voter is already on. In 2018, Wisconsin Republicans and Democrats will clash yet again for two massive statewide races, U.S. Senate and governor. Both races could serve as a test case for whether the hodgepodge coalition of Trump voters will fall apart in two years, or if Trump’s win was the manifestation of a political realignment here from blue to red.
“We’re certainly trending that way,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said on a recent, sunny May weekend in a rare moment free from shaking hands and schmoozing at the state’s annual GOP convention.
Johnson is Exhibit A for why Wisconsin Republicans are so confident: He is one of the greatest political comebacks of 2016. Last fall, even national Republicans had given up on the first-term senator’s reelection chances, but Johnson ended up winning the most votes of any Republican candidate in Wisconsin’s history. “My colleagues in the Senate look at Wisconsin with real envy, because — let’s face it — nobody thought I’d be back.”
Before 2010, if you had asked Johnson — or anyone else — if Wisconsin was red, you probably would have gotten laughed at.
Democrats controlled every major statewide office and the state legislature, and the state hadn’t voted for the Republican candidate for president since 1984.
Enter Scott Walker, a folksy-talking Republican candidate for governor who won in 2010. Then he won again in 2012, when Democrats tried to recall him for rolling back collective-bargaining rights. Then he won reelection in 2014. The nonstop political battles were grueling, but Republicans say that along the way, they whipped their meh state party into a vote-getting, organizational powerhouse.
Now, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is one of the last 2010 Wisconsin Democrats standing. And Republicans are hoping to take her out next November and reelect Walker for a third term.
If they can do that.
“I think success in 2018 pretty much solidifies that this is a red state,” said Mark Morgan, executive director of the state Republican Party.
The irony of Wisconsin’s new role as Trump’s proving ground was that it was one of the most Never Trump states in GOP primary. Walker dropped out of the 2016 presidential race after 70 days and urged the party to choose anyone other than Trump.
But looking back, the Wisconsin-Trump match-up actually makes perfect sense, state Republicans say.
The Walker recall elections and Johnson’s tight race helped them develop a secret sauce to connect with the elusive Trump voters, who don’t seem to fit into any traditional political messaging and modeling.
Walker was talking to blue-collar voters before Trump ever came along. And Johnson’s 2016 campaign spent significant time and resources trying to reach out to swing voters in rural parts of the state — think the Ronald Reagan-era blue-collar Democrat who was turned off by the anti-Walker protesters in liberal Madison. It worked.
For now. Wisconsin voters are famously, frustratingly schizophrenic. Every election since 2002, Wisconsin voters have voted against the president’s party, including in Senate and gubernatorial races. The one exception to that rule is Baldwin, who won alongside President Barack Obama in 2012.
“She knows how to talk to people who aren’t in her party,” warned Ruth Johnson, a local leader in Wisconsin’s Republican Party.
Wisconsin Democrats are mobilizing their troops. They’ve hired organizing staff months early and are holding town halls in more traditional Republican neighborhoods, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s district.
At one of those town hall meetings was Rep. Mark Pocan, one of three Democrats in Wisconsin’s eight-member House delegation. Pocan said the voters he meets aren’t sold on the Republican Party just yet: “What ultimately hurt us” in 2016, he said, “was a lot of Democrats stayed home. And our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Republicans have another potentially tricky messaging tightrope to walk: The selling points that have made their candidates so successful — anti-incumbency, a more economically focused message — could work against them in 2018.
For the first time in a decade, Republicans control every level of government in Wisconsin AND in Washington. If they can’t build a wall or repeal Obamacare or keep lowering taxes (the latter of which Walker promised to convention attendees), they have nowhere to hide.
“Everything that’s going wrong in your life, if you’re a voter right now, is because of Republicans,” said Scot Ross, a longtime Wisconsin Democratic operative, previewing the party’s 2018 message.
First, Democrats will have to find a messenger. Actually, neither side has one yet.
GOP Senate hopefuls could have a nasty and expensive primary fight after a top member of Congress decided not to run against Baldwin, and Democrats don’t yet have a credible challenger to Walker.
What happens in Washington has a unique ripple effect in Wisconsin, because the lawmaker at the center of congressional Republicans’ legislative wins and blows is a favorite son of Wisconsin.
Ryan also happens to be one of the best fundraisers in politics, and he put $1 million in the state party’s bank account in 2016. But Ryan never campaigned with Trump, and some rank-and-file Wisconsin Trump supporters resent him for that.
“I think he has done everything that he can do,” said Bill Elmhurst, a Ted Cruz-turned-Trump supporter taking a coffee break at the convention. “He has limited powers; he’s not a dictator.”
“Is Paul Ryan holding the president back?” this reporter asked.
“I don’t think Ryan feels as productive as he wants to,” said Dave Fuchs, another Cruz-turned-Trump supporter. “He’s trying to thread a needle to get something he can get through the system.”
A couple hours later, Fuchs and Elmhurst would be sitting in the main convention hall at this woodsy resort, which sits in the middle of a rural, off-and-on Democratic county that went for Trump in November.
They were clapping politely for Ryan and parade of Republican lawmakers, all of whom still seemed in awe about their party’s good fortunes over the past seven years.
“Years from now, they’re going to write books about what’s happening here in Wisconsin,” bragged state Senate President Roger Roth (R).
Maybe. But Wisconsin Republicans will have a better chance of getting that book deal if they can knock out a sitting U.S. senator and elect their governor to a third term in 2018.