As Republicans gather in Oshkosh this weekend, we’re actually heading into an odd lull in Wisconsin politics. There will be no elections for statewide offices this November, only one statewide election in spring 2020 for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and no statewide offices in November 2020.
Wisconsin won’t be completely boring, of course. The Democrats are bringing their national convention to Milwaukee in 2020. President Donald Trump will be up for re-election. The legislature will also have to deal with the occasional special election for vacancies and then we’ll have the usual legislative elections in November next year.
But, for the most part, the party apparatus can catch its breath for the first time since the 2010 election that made Scott Walker governor of Wisconsin. That’s good, because the party needs the time to recover.
The party is reeling from an audit that revealed Wisconsin Republicans spent far too much on Washington D.C. consultants, ran down the party treasury, and even skipped some payments to vendors. Despite spending like Democrats, the Republican Party actually lost every statewide office in 2018 even with a strong economy.
I didn’t need a report to tell me that Republicans are spending too much on D.C. consultants. As the editor here, I’ve been amazed at the articles sent to me by public relations firms in Washington that were supposedly written by Wisconsinites. The Republican Party could just send us the check with the article and cut out the middle man, except it’s obviously the middle men doing the writing.
Reading the report, there seems to be four reforms the party will undertake: be nicer to volunteers, more yard signs, use less expensive consultants, and pay the bills. Yes, despite the report saying we shouldn’t roll our eyes at “more yard signs,” we should roll our eyes at “more yard signs.”
The report also mentions doing a better job of coordinating media responses and improving communications. That could start any day now since we weren’t even asked if we wanted to have a booth again at the convention. (You would think they would want our money.) Not one person at the party has reached out to see if we were coming to the convention. I only mention it because, if in theory we’re the likeminded side of the media, imagine how poor the communications must be with the rest of the media.
Missing from the report, however, is a real accounting of what is happening to the Republican Party. For example: while the report mentions the growing gender gap, it does not acknowledge that part of the problem is President Donald Trump’s unpopularity with suburban women. And while the report claims the Republican Party wants to reach out to Hispanic voters, perhaps somebody should have a conversation with the Waukesha Republican Party who hosted a “Build the Wall” gala.
But even before Trump’s election, a whole horde of grifters infiltrated the conservative movement, alienating voters who should be Republicans, motivating Democrats to turn out their voters, and feasting on the financial carcass of the elephant.
Ironically, the state party is bringing one of those alienating grifters, Candace Owens, to speak at the convention Friday night. What a long way the party has fallen when they’re so embarrassed by what Owens might say that the event is closed to the media. Are they afraid she is going to say more nice things about Adolf Hitler?
Sadly, the Owens event is “sold out,” demonstrating just how willing the grass roots of the party are willing to be fleeced by someone who is willing to tell them Trump and the GOP will win over minority voters before the 2020 election. But hey, she annoys all the right people, so let’s buy tickets, right? I don’t know which is worse, the party pandering to the least common denominator, or that it worked.
As for the changes to the party that have been made so far, it’s near unanimous among Republicans that bringing Mark Jefferson back to be the executive director was a good move. Hopefully, Jefferson can catch the party up to the Democrats in organizing the grass roots to turn out voters. As we learned from the special state senate elections in 2018 and the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, the Democrats are ahead in technology and organization, as well as motivation. The opposition research and messaging for the party could use a real upgrade, too.
Reactions are mixed about the appointment of Andrew Hitt as the party’s chairman. Hitt was the party treasurer when all of the financial problems occurred. This is like making the Titanic’s navigator the captain of another large passenger ship. And as the Chief Operating Officer of Michael Best Strategies, how many hidden conflicts of interest will there be as his government relations organization tries to work with the Evers administration? Hitt should be a very temporary employee until the party can find a full-time party chairman, one that isn’t trying to influence government policy for paying clients while trying to run a state party.
To be fair, the losses in 2018 can’t all be laid at the state party’s door. Democrats were motivated by Trump, Republicans less so. Judge Michael Screnock’s race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court ran into anti-Trump sentiment and didn’t have an effective media campaign. Former state Sen. Leah Vukmir had to fight an awful primary and ran an awful campaign at the same time. Gov. Scott Walker was defeated by complacency and one too many campaigns, not to mention the damage done (by Trump, too) during the 2016 campaign for president. Attorney General Brad Schimel nearly won, but was dragged down by forces beyond his control, including a national GOP Attorney General committee that is behind the Democrats’ organization.
However, the party needs to improve if it is going to win. The party needs to do a real job of reaching out to women and minority voters. It needs to do a better job of fighting the Democrats. And it needs to be smarter in how it turns out GOP voters.
The few Republican activists that show up at this year’s convention will have a good time. They’ll rub elbows with elected officials, they’ll enjoy the hospitality suites and they’ll probably celebrate, in the words of former Gov. Tommy Thompson, what a great day it is to be a Republican in Wisconsin. Perhaps someday it will be again, but only with a more honest examination of what is really wrong with the party.