In a year when the utter failure of President Biden’s administration is expected to fuel a Republican wave at the ballot box, the Wisconsin Republican primary for governor is setting up to be a battle for the party’s soul. Let us hope that the primary battle isn’t rendered moot by helping the feckless Gov. Tony Evers win a second term.
There are some major shifts happening within the Wisconsin Republican base. First, there is deep frustration with the Republican elected leadership. The Republican base turned decidedly more conservative starting around 2004. The first real sign of it was when then assemblyman Glenn Grothman challenged incumbent Republican Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer in a primary and defeated her with 79% of the vote. Grothman staked out a very conservative position to Panzer’s more moderate approach. Grothman’s victory signaled that the Republican base had shifted more conservative and it continued to move that way for the next decade.
By 2010, when conservative Scott Walker won the governorship with a solidly conservative Legislature, the conservative movement in Wisconsin was at its apex. Over the next four years, Wisconsin enacted more conservative legislation than any time in its history — perhaps in any state’s history.
By 2016, the base of the Republican Party was getting frustrated. The base was as conservative as ever, but the elected Republicans in Madison seemed to have lost their drive. Few conservative initiatives were being passed and the elected leaders seemed to be getting too comfortable in Madison. The Republican base’s frustration led to Walker’s defeat by Evers as some conservatives sat home. Wisconsin’s elected Republicans still aren’t listening and have lost 11 of the last 12 statewide elections.
2016 also saw the dramatic change in the Republican base with a wave of populism ushered in by President Donald Trump. Here was a new brand of Republican. While very similar to the conservative wing in terms of philosophy, they are very different in terms of priorities and style. They tended to be more socially liberal, less fiscally conservative, more willing to challenge orthodoxy, less willing to tolerate bull, and more aggressive in style.
The Republican populists rose out of a deep frustration with the establishment, and the elites in our state and nation are not only failing to represent and respect the people, but they are actively working against the people’s interests. Recent history has proven them right in many respects. While more traditional conservatives seek to advance change through existing institutions and power structures, populists seek to tear down those structures and replace them with something better.
The Republican primary for governor is a contest between all these various forces. Conservative versus populist. Establishment versus outsider. Madison Republicanism versus W.O.W. Republicanism.
Last week Republican Rep. Timothy Ramthun announced his run for governor. He is the fourth declared candidate for the Republican nomination for governor. Ramthun comes from the populist wing and is running on the issue that the 2020 election in Wisconsin was illegitimate.
Kevin Nicholson also comes from the populist wing, but he isn’t one of the flight feathers. He is determined to break Madison’s hold on the party and advocates a muscular conservatism.
Jonathan Wichmann is less well-known, but is advocating a more intellectual, business approach to governing.
Rebecca Kleefisch comes from the conservative wing. She first won election as a conservative outsider by challenging the old Republican establishment. She built her campaign with the support of the Republican establishment but is pushing to return Wisconsin conservatism to action instead of just remembering past successes.
Primaries are healthy. In a two-party system where each of the political parties is a confederation of groups that span a continuum of similar, but not identical, philosophies, primaries offer each faction the opportunity to be heard and shape the whole. The key to obtaining the power to make changes, however, is dependent on those factions combining their strength behind the winner of the primary to win in the general election. Otherwise, all the infighting is just a bunch of nobodies arguing with nonentities. Nobody cares.
The Republican Party should have a robust and full-throated primary election, and then line up to make sure that whoever wins the primary has the financial and organizational muscle to defeat Tony Evers.
Everything but tech support.