Wisconsin GOP Sticks to its Trump card

Caught between a rock named Trump and a hard place named independent voters, Wisconsin Republicans are standing by their man in the White House.

The morning of Thursday, June 28, was heating up rapidly, especially for two guys wearing suits: Gov. Scott Walker and President Donald Trump, both of whom had traveled to a soggy expanse of dirt in Racine County to celebrate the groundbreaking of Foxconn’s enormous manufacturing facility in Mount Pleasant. Standing side by side with other officials, the two inserted golden shovels beneath a billboard-sized American flag hanging from backhoe buckets. Walker took a clean scoop and turned over the blade, while Trump stabbed at the soil and tossed it.

Walker announcing in September 2015 that he was ending his bid for the White House
Walker announcing in September 2015 that he was ending his bid for the White House; Photo by Andy Manis/Getty Images

Walker, who’s loath to share the spotlight willingly, made the embattled president and former presidential campaign enemy a central part of the day, intended as a midsummer victory lap amid the governor’s close race for re-election. At the press conference, the president called Walker a “favorite of mine” and waved him onto the stage: “Come here.”

“Foxconn would not be in America if not for you,” Walker said, knowing Trump needed the victory as badly as he did.

The president was dripping with controversy and polling badly with independents, so why snuggle up to him as Walker has, or as Republican U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir has? In both national and state polls, Trump’s approval rating among registered voters has hovered in the low 40s in recent months. But there’s more to the story – some 80 percent of Republicans still approve of the president, and because of this sturdy base, “Any Republican who is going to be on the ballot this year has to hug Trump as tightly as they can,” says Mordecai Lee, professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee and a former Democratic state senator. Neither Walker nor Vukmir, who’s challenging senator Tammy Baldwin, can afford to piss off their party’s base. These folks won’t vote for a Democrat, but they might just stay home on Election Day.

Still, the turnabout is awkward for Walker, whom Trump once ridiculed for riding around on his “little motorcycle,” making campaign speeches like “a big tough guy.” The governor’s pride-swallowing is just more evidence of his political resilience and agility, according to Lee, and he’ll need both on Nov. 6. Trump pushed the strategy of mobilizing the Republican base to its extreme, Lee says, and now politicians running in his wake have to hold onto the fragile coalition remaining and hope they can spur the same turnout in a midterm election. So it’s setting up as a challenge of Trump fever in Wisconsin – suffering badly with less than 40 percent of independents now backing the president – crashing into whatever Democratic wave emerges.

Blue waves in recent years have been like blue moons, but Lilly Goren, a professor of political science at Carroll University, says there’s national evidence that a small but significant crest is on its way after a smattering of minor Democratic victories around the country. Wisconsin saw a couple of GOP legislative seats flip Democrat in special elections earlier this year. “We’re waiting to see if the Trump sword cuts both ways” in a large general election, Goren says.

Walker hasn’t reinvented himself in his race for a third term, and he remains haunted by many of Trump’s demographic shortcomings. Both men are far more unpopular with women, according to a Marquette University Law School Poll from August: Only 48 percent of Wisconsin’s female registered voters believed the state is headed in the right direction, compared with 60 percent of their male counterparts. When it comes to Trump on critical issues, only 33 percent of Wisconsin women approved of how he’s handling immigration, versus 50 percent of men, and he suffers from similar gaps regarding his handling of Russian interference during the 2016 election and whether to build a border wall. These days, both Walker and Trump are most popular with voters who have attained less than a four-year degree – not a good sign, seeing as how better-educated people tend to have greater turnout.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for Walker. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of people who felt the economy had gotten better under his watch rose from 22 percent to 46 percent, and 53 percent now feel the state is headed in the right direction.

Walker’s Democratic opponent Tony Evers, the state superintendent who’s running as a career educator, is in many ways the direct opposite of Walker. He has greater support among women and also has polled well with younger voters. Despite winning the statewide election to his post three times, he’s not well known. As late as August, when he won an eight-way primary, about 25 percent of registered voters still didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion. 

Vukmir suffers from a similar lack of name recognition. Running for the first time in a statewide race, she’s trailed Baldwin, who has cultivated in recent years the image of a pro-business, common-sense liberal Democrat. Like her longtime ally Walker, Vukmir is more popular with men than women, and also like the governor, she’s strong in both southeastern and northeastern Wisconsin, where the Fox Cities and Green Bay make up a valuable swing area largely held by Republicans in recent years.

And as if Walker doesn’t have enough to worry about, internal strife has arisen among the ranks of Wisconsin Republicans. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have sniped from the sidelines in recent weeks, criticizing Walker on youth prison conditions during the heat of a major campaign. “They’re done with Walker,” says one Democratic insider. “It’s been eight years.” While Vos has designs on Walker’s job, Fitzgerald is mostly concerned with holding onto the Republican majority in the state Senate, the source adds.

Trump’s victory in 2016 in Wisconsin was narrow and caught nearly everyone by surprise, mobilizing voters no one had ever mobilized before. But it also cost the Republican Party: Many college-educated women departed, and Protestant Christians have moved away from Trump, leaving only Catholics as majority supporters. Pulling off a Republican win will be harder this time around. “Will the Trump magnetism hold with voters who would not normally vote in a midterm?” Lee says. “My guess is not.”

Four to watch

Robin Vos

Assembly speaker

Vos and Walker have tussled over the state budget and highway funding in the past, but the Republican recently took it up a notch by criticizing Walker mid-campaign for not visiting the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison. Plus, Vos owns a popcorn factory and a car wash (among other businesses) and has a reputation as a dealmaker.

Mandela Barnes

Candidate for Lt. Governor

A smart, well-thought-of Milwaukeean, Barnes has hitched his star to Wisconsin’s least dangerous statewide race (he’ll take office only if Evers does). But, says one insider, “He wins, win or lose,” and having beaten a better-funded primary opponent, he’s shown he can deliver.

Kelda Roys

Business owner

Energetic and hopeful, the former Assemblywoman was the surprise hit of the Democratic primary, though she ultimately lost to Evers. That’s a liability, but some believe Roys still could run again, perhaps for state Senate or even Congress. These days, she’s working on her virtual real estate brokerage, OpenHomes.

Jim Steineke

Assembly majority leader

Like Vos, Steineke is a pro-business member of the Republican bench with ambitions to climb higher. Unlike Vos, he’s been a more reliable ally of Walker. He strongly opposed Trump during the presidential race, and has criticized him since. Included in his Twitter bio: “Relax, politics isn’t everything.”

“Wisconsin GOP Sticks to its Trump card” appears in the November 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.