The Wisconsin Republicans held their convention this past weekend. State political conventions are usually fairly lively and fun for those who attend, but utterly boring for those looking in from the outside. It is a time for party loyalists to reconnect with friends, revel in philosophical debates with people who think about such things, and advocate for elected and party leaders. It is only during important election years that anyone outside of the party pays any attention with opponents looking for “gotchas” and loyalists looking for direction.
The most anticipated and interesting event from this year’s state Republican convention was the result of the party endorsement vote. Every four years, the delegates of the convention will vote to endorse a primary candidate for governor. In order for the party to endorse a candidate, 60% or more of the delegates must vote for the same candidate.
The party’s endorsement is not just about bragging rights. It carries with it official party support with financial and logistical support for the endorsed candidate. Party members are free to support and work for whichever candidate they choose, but the party itself cannot support a primary candidate without that candidate being endorsed by the convention delegates. In recent memory, there has always been a strong front-runner for the Republican ticket well before the convention, so the convention delegates have used the endorsement vote as a mechanism to rally support for the chosen candidate. For example, in 2006, Mark Green and Scott Walker were battling for the nomination, but Walker dropped out in March and the Republican convention that year was more of a campaign rally for Green than anything else.
This year is different. With expectations high that the Republican candidate will have a strong chance of winning the governorship against incumbent Tony Evers, there is a sporty race for the Republican nomination. This cast a new importance on the party endorsement, but with a reversed polarity.
Many voters who always vote Republican or might lean that way this year are fed up with politicians. There is a strong feeling, stoked by traditional anti-government groups and egged on by the Trump wing of the party, that we need to throw all the bums out and elect political novices to office. That feeling is justified by the poor performance of our entire political establishment and rooted in our American tradition of amateur governance.
In this environment, the party endorsement is viewed by many as a negative. When the people want an outsider, the endorsement of a political party is political poison. How can a candidate be an outsider if the party establishment, as represented by the delegates of a formal convention, have endorsed that candidate?
Rebecca Kleefisch has been the GOP front-runner for months and, until Tim Michels entered the race, was widely expected to receive the Republican Party’s endorsement. Since entering the race, Michels has been flooding the media with commercials touting him as an outsider. Michels is wrangling over the title of “outsider” with Kevin Nicholson, who has been positioning himself as such for years. Timothy Ramthun might actually be the biggest outsider, even though he is an elected member of the state Assembly, as he runs on the fringe issue of overturning the 2020 election. Kleefisch, not to be out-outsidered, reminds people that she was an original outsider who challenged and beat the party favorite to get the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor (true).
So who is the real outsider? Frankly, who cares? It is a stupid distinction by which to decide for whom you will vote. Instead of bickering over who is the outsider, or the real outsider, or the super outsider, or the out-there outsider, we should cast our vote for the person who most shares our values and who is most likely to be effective in governing by those values. Values matter. Ideology matters (see: Biden administration). Backbone matters. Leadership matters. Execution matters. The insider-outsider continuum is meaningless.
For the record, nobody won the Republican party’s endorsement, so I guess all of the candidates are outsiders.
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