Suddenly Starless Wisconsin GOP Plots Rebuild for 2020

May 13, 2019 Updated: May 13, 2019

MADISON, Wis.—Republicans determined to deliver Wisconsin for President Donald Trump next year will be doing it with a party working to rebuild after the departure of its two biggest stars and a rough midterm election that sent it reeling.

The Wisconsin GOP heads into its state convention on May 17 with a plan that depends on rebuilding from the ground up after former House Speaker Paul Ryan retired and Gov. Scott Walker was voted out of office.

“After the November 2018 elections it was a combination of shock and a certain level of depression,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, the only Republican left in statewide office. Johnson led a post-mortem study of the midterm losses that determined more work needed to be done at the local level to recruit and train both volunteers and candidates.

Johnson will discuss the report at the convention, which has taken the theme “A New Day. A New Party” and will emphasize training and workshops over the usual political speeches. Johnson said that work will create a “grassroots juggernaut” to reelect Trump.

Wisconsin is among a handful of battleground states that could determine the 2020 election.

Trump was the first Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984 to carry Wisconsin, but he did so by less than 1 percentage point. Reagan was also the last Republican to win the state twice in a row. Barack Obama won big both times he ran for president, but previous Democratic candidates won by less than half a point in 2000 and 2004.

“We can win in this state; we’ve done it,” said Republican Party activist Brian Westrate, an insurance agent from Fall Creek in western Wisconsin. “One bad election cycle doesn’t mean our conservative philosophy and ideology is dead. We just, perhaps, got too far away from all being in the same boat rowing in the same direction.”

Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who ran George W. Bush’s Wisconsin campaign in 2004, said he thinks Republicans are entering 2020 ready for an “incredibly tight, tough race” with uncertainty about how it will play out.

“The sense is nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen next year,” Graul said.

To win in 2020, more work needs to be done to organize at the local level, said state party executive director Mark Jefferson. That covers things as rudimentary as making sure yard signs are widely available and distributed and as advanced as using data analytics to target likely voters and get people on the ground to knock on their doors, Jefferson said.

“Was enough of that stuff done last time around? Maybe, maybe not,” Jefferson said.

By Scott Bauer