MADISON, Wis. – A trio of Wisconsin Republicans looking to inject the party with their own youthful, aggressive brand of conservatism ushered in the “Cheesehead Revolution.” Their aim was to position the GOP for success in the 2016 presidential election.
Then came Donald Trump.
With the anti-Trump movement in full swing even as Trump solidifies his front-runner status in the presidential race, the focus turns to the April 5 primary in the home state of those three heavyweights: House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Gov. Scott Walker.
They are trying to chart a course in the face of a revolt over Trump’s rise and what it means for the future of the Republican Party – and for each of them individually.
“The great plans came off the tracks with the presence of Donald Trump, both in terms of where the party would be and presidential ambitions,” said Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who ran against Walker twice and lost both times. “Donald Trump changed everything.”
The “Cheesehead Revolution,” as Walker and Priebus dubbed it, began in 2011. With Ryan rising in the House, Walker a new governor, and Priebus taking over the party apparatus, the trio then represented what looked to be a unified party in a swing state that could become a GOP stronghold in presidential races to come.
But in 2012, Mitt Romney lost to incumbent Barack Obama, with Ryan as his running mate. Priebus tried to steer the party in a more inclusive direction.
In 2013, he issued the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” aimed toward an immigration overhaul and outreach to minorities, and driven by the recognition that Hispanics in particular were rising as a proportion of the population.
Now that tract is known as an autopsy report.
The recommendations put Priebus at odds with more conservative Republicans. And now, two of the three remaining presidential candidates, Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have built their campaigns not on trying to broaden the party by reaching out to Hispanics and minorities, but by appealing to evangelicals and more conservative white voters.
Priebus’s report “has been haunting the Republican Party” ever since its release, said Steve King, an Iowa Republican congressman who backs Cruz.
“It’s awfully hard to recover from something like that,” King said.
Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. He’s made a border wall a cornerstone of his platform. Those positions have torn at the party’s core, contributing to efforts to stop him.
Priebus puts the best face on the chaotic campaign. He says his party is large enough to handle a variety of opinions about the best course. He cites record fundraising and voter turnout. He calls it a “miracle turnaround.”
Ryan became House speaker in October, replacing John Boehner, and his stock has risen to a point that some Republicans see him as an alternative to Trump if the nomination isn’t settled going into the summer convention. “Paul Ryan has brought about climate change there,” said King, meaning the climate in Congress, “and I mean that in a very complimentary way.” King is one of the most conservative members of Congress and was a critic of Boehner.
Just as he refused initial calls to run for speaker, Ryan has tried to tamp down talk of being drafted as an alternative to Trump at the convention.
Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of Wisconsin’s state Assembly, said Trump’s rise has helped to put the Republican Party at a crossroads. But Vos said he still believes Walker, Ryan and Priebus are in positions to “change the face of government.”
Vos pointed to Walker’s record as governor as proof that with a “good, articulate leader,” Republicans can advance their conservative agenda, even in a politically divided state like Wisconsin. Vos endorsed Cruz on Friday.
But Walker has been struggling with public support since his failed presidential run. His call in September for other Republican candidates to join him and drop out of the race to make it easier for others to take on Trump went ignored for months.
Walker still hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race, with Wisconsin’s primary just over a week away. He told AP he sees Trump’s popularity as an “an anomaly” that is overshadowed in significance by Republican success in governor’s races and state legislative contests for years.
“You look over the last five, six years, the story that’s had the longer impact is not who the nominee is for one presidential election but this shift that’s happened nationally,” Walker said.
Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who lost to Walker in 2010 and 2012, said the political landscape has changed for Walker and Republicans since the governor won a recall election four years ago over his battle with public-service unions in the states. “A lot of the glitter’s gone,” he said.