This column is not about sour grapes or score settling. Nor should it be viewed as a personal attack against any individual candidate, employee, campaign operative or party volunteer. There are good people who have worked for and with the state party over the last several years, and I hope this is not viewed as an assault on their character or their performance. Because that is certainly not my intent.
However, with the changing of the guard in Madison and recent statewide losses at the top of the ticket, now is a good time to consider a restructuring and reinvigoration of Republican operations in Wisconsin. Some of these ideas are mine alone, but most have been discussed formally and informally by many throughout the years.
And there is no better time to have a fruitful discussion about the structure and operation of the Republican Party of Wisconsin than right now. After years of enjoying a solid advantage over the Democrats’ finance and field operations, Republicans are now at a point where we need to reconnoiter and retool.
Some of these changes will require action by the Republican Party of Wisconsin (RPW) executive committee. Other moves could be made without much procedural or palace intrigue.
- First and foremost, Republican candidates and operative across the state would benefit tremendously if we decentralized power out of Madison.
- Second, the structure should be more horizontal, less vertical. Make it easier for new leaders to rise.
- Republicans have long championed moving several state government operations out of the Madison bubble. From forestry jobs that were moved to the North woods to human service positions that were moved to Southeast Wisconsin, the GOP’s effort to draw from talent outside of the isthmus was smart. They should emulate that at RPW. I believe it is too easy to be isolated in a self-referential feedback loop by living and working in Dane County. Why force someone in Eau Claire to uproot their family if they are the right fit for a job at the party that could be accomplished via telecommuting or working at a satellite office?
- In the early 90s it made sense to launch a capital campaign to purchase a headquarters to house RPW operations. The Governors Walter J. Kohler building on Johnson street was a hub of activity that helped build and train a team of young, eager campaign operatives that helped us gain legislative majorities for the first time in decades. But times change. Gone are the days when thirty to forty Capitol staffers would regularly spend their lunch hour labeling and sorting bulk mail pieces for candidates. Advancement in communication and social media have also changed the way we communicate and organize. They should consider selling the building and using the proceeds to invest in regional offices, including one in Madison, but perhaps not in the high rent district.
- I believe the finance/fundraising operations of the party should return to Southeast Wisconsin where the bulk of the state’s major donors work and live. The party should also consider moving the political/field operation to Wausau or some other strategic location in North Central Wisconsin.
- Unlike our Democratic counterparts, the State Chairman is a volunteer position and the Executive Director serves as the chief operations manager of the state party. We should consider making the state chairman less ceremonial and more hands on, even if that requires a salary or stipend.
- Republicans need to re-establish a vigorous ground operation in Dane County, Milwaukee County and in Western Wisconsin. I understand that demographics and politics change. But we can’t write off entire sections of the state. When we do that we lose two counties by nearly 300,000 votes. While the party should invest in infrastructure and technology, the main focus for RPW should be to develop people.
- There will be much resistance to many of these ideas, but perhaps to none more so than this one: I believe the state party should serve as a facilitator for the county parties. They should share all their voter id, donor and other data to help counties increase their local membership. Moreover, for larger counties, we need to go back to the community branches. They worked. We had more dues-paying members in those larger counties back then. They may have been a logistical pain for the convention planners, but that system worked.
- Some counties have done an extraordinary job year-in and year-out. The state party shouldn’t just recognize them at state convention, they should pick the brains of those leaders and find a way to emulate their successes across the state. These leaders are hold the institutional knowledge of local boots on the ground organizing that I certainly lacked when I was a 20-something RPW staffer. You don’t need a degree in political science to be a great campaign operative. I witnessed fantastic field work over the last several months by the leaders in Walworth, Washington, Marinette, Brown, Shawano, Pierce, Monroe and Sheboygan counties, to name just a few. Television and radio ads deliver messages to the masses and are extremely important. Hell, I produce and place them for a living. But without a day-to-day, peer-to-peer operation on the ground, we leave a lot of potential votes unharvested.
- Listen and learn, too, from from the Federation of Republican Women, and the women and men who lead the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate.
- While there are several established leaders, RPW can better facilitate training to identify and create new ones. There are a couple of thousand very active volunteers that bust their tails every campaign. There are a couple of hundred hard-core superstar grassroots leaders who have attended every one of their annual Lincoln Day dinners and the annual state conventions for the last 40 years. There are several dozen fantastic people who have basically dedicated all of their free time to keeping about a dozen of our county parties active and relevant year-round. But there are hundreds of thousands of potential volunteers and donors who could give a little of their time on a semi-regular basis. We need to harness that potential, tap into their enthusiasm and give them the opportunity to rise without having to participate for decades before assuming leadership positions.
- Note, absent from all this is any discussion of policy. The caucus leaders in the Assembly and the Senate as well as our state’s Congressional delegation can handle the implementation of the party’s platform. The state party should be agnostic when it comes to the day-to-day political squabbles in the Madison and DC Swamps. Legislative committees handle their candidate recruitment and agenda for the session but the state party works best when it is driven by one or two elected officials.
- Millennials often get a bad rap and we need to do a better job of reaching out to them. We need to continue to have a rigorous high school outreach and tap into the ideas and energy of our College and Young Republicans. Frankly, I’d love to see our next state chairman be someone under the age of 40. At the same time, I think the party operation would benefit from having more grey hair working on the day-to-day operations. The party will be stronger if their staff more closely resembles the pool of voters they are courting.
- Finally, let’s make election-year conventions meaningful. If counties don’t bring their allotted number of delegates to the state convention, that’s their loss. Don’t proportion out their votes to whomever shows up from each county / branch. It would incentivize participation in the convention process. I’m also not alone in thinking that expensive, time-consuming and less-relevant “off year” conventions should be scrapped in favor of a day of service in rotating Wisconsin communities, followed by a political rally with a national speaker.
Even though I’m middle aged, this is not an “I told you so,” or “Back in my day,” diatribe. I hope this can serve as a launching point for several much-needed constructive conversations that lead to a better and more successful party.
I understand these proposals are all over the map, and there are several smarter and more accomplished leaders in the party who are taking a much more active role in charting the future course of RPW. So, who the hell am I to offer these suggestions? Just a guy… a voter, a donor and a grassroots activist who knows there are lessons to be learned from defeats at the polls.
Each setback should be embraced as an opportunity to change and grow. And operationally, we have some growing we need to do. If we want more donors, more candidates, more activists and, most importantly, more voters, the status quo isn’t going to cut it.
The owner of Edge Messaging in crucial Waukesha County, Fraley has spent nearly 30 years in Republican policy and political circles in Wisconsin and Washington, DC. He is a former Political Director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin and recently served as the general consultant for Attorney General Brad Schimel. Fraley is also a former Managing Editor of RightWisconsin.