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‘Numbers Nobody Has Ever Seen’: How the GOP Lost Wisconsin
RIPON, Wis. — For Timothy Bachleitner, a Republican Party leader in this small Wisconsin city, his party’s collapse in a spring election for state Supreme Court was demoralizing enough. But what really hurt was when a Mack truck rolled through Ripon not long after, wrenched up a building revered as the sentimental birthplace of the GOP, and plunked it down on a commercial corridor a little more than a mile away.
The Little White Schoolhouse, where a group of Whigs, Free Soilers and Democrats met to form a new, anti-slavery party in 1854, had been moved several times before, and the building’s owner, the Ripon Chamber of Commerce, said the new location would make it easier to accommodate visitors when Republicans hold their national convention in Milwaukee next year. But the National Register of Historic Places was not impressed, telling officials the schoolhouse would be delisted. The episode sparked a minor controversy in Republican Party circles around the state.
Whatever the logic — more parking, a planned visitor center with actual bathrooms in an old bank building next door — this piece of GOP history now sits across from a vape shop, near a car dealership, a Culver’s restaurant and a sewage treatment plant. For Bachleitner, chair of the Fond du Lac County GOP, it seemed evocative — not so much of the party’s history as, at least in Wisconsin, its decline.
“It kind of looks like a circus show now,” he said. “You might as well put the world’s largest yarn ball next to it, or cheese curd.”
When we met one recent morning at the plot of land where the schoolhouse previously stood, strips of caution tape dangled from posts beside a rubble-strewn pit, tread marks in the grass.
“It’s so degrading,” Bachleitner said.
It’s been going a lot like that for Republicans in Wisconsin lately, which has been jarring for a state that, post-Barack Obama, had seemingly been shifting to the right. For more than a decade, Republicans have used aggressive redistricting and other heavy-handed tactics in the state Legislature to press a narrow advantage into a seemingly permanent upper hand over Democrats. It began with the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the tea party wave of 2010 and continued through a bold but unsuccessful effort by hard-line Republicans to decertify the state's 2020 presidential election results. But Joe Biden won the state in 2020. And in the April election, liberal Milwaukee County judge Janet Protasiewicz beat conservativeformerstate Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly by a whopping 11 percentage points, flipping the ideological majority of the court.
In the aftermath, even Republicans here are acknowledging that the state has now shifted leftward, and abortion has a lot to do with that. The end of Roe v. Wade last year effectively reinstated Wisconsin’s 19th-century abortion ban, which is already being challenged — and those challenges will likely be decided by the state Supreme Court. That’s why Protasiewicz campaigned heavily on protecting abortion rights, and the election turned almost entirely on the issue. Turnout was staggering. In 2015, in a similar spring election, a liberal state Supreme Court justice won reelection in a contest in which about 813,000 people voted. This year, the total number of voters who cast ballots in the Supreme Court race more than doubled to top 1.8 million.
To gauge how the state GOP was assessing those results, and before meeting Bachleitner in Ripon, I drove to a Lincoln Day Dinner in rural Merrillan, Wis., a couple of hours west. In the parking lot, I met a family on their way in. The husband, Chris Faeth, told me flatly that “the Republican Party is dead.” His wife, Ann, said she could see the liberal swing of the state in its demographics — the cities of Milwaukee, Madison and La Crosse — and in the “fake news” that she said left conservatives with “no voice.” Chris’ father, Norm, told me that coming back is “going to take some time.”
“Republicans,” he said, “need to solve this abortion issue.”
Inside the supper club, I met state Rep. Donna Rozar, a Republican who told me she’d been “disappointed, obviously” with the election. She called the political climate “challenging,” which is the assessment of Republicans pretty much everywhere in Wisconsin.
“We got our butts kicked,” Rohn Bishop, Bachleitner’s predecessor as chair of the Fond du Lac County GOP and, now, mayor of the small city of Waupun, told me. “What the Republican base demands and what independent voters will accept are growing further apart.”
Bishop and I were eating lunch in a bar. The only way forward for the GOP in Wisconsin, joked a man drinking Jack and Coke beside us, might be to “kill the millennials.”
It wasn’t long ago that no Republican in Wisconsin was talking like that. Donald Trump in 2016 carried the state for the Republican Party in a presidential race for the first time since 1984. And even after Biden won it back for the Democrats in 2020, there was — and still is — a credible case to be made that of all the swing states, Wisconsin might be the likeliest for Republicans to flip in 2024.
For one thing, its demographics, unlike the rapidly diversifying states of Georgia, Arizona or Nevada, still look good for the GOP. In the 2020 election, 86 percent of voters were white, while people without college degrees — one of the Republican Party’s most reliable constituencies — made up two-thirds of the electorate. The state’s incumbent Republican senator, Ron Johnson, who entered his reelection campaign last year as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, won one of the year’s most expensive Senate races.
And even in the April elections, two conservative-backed ballot measures passed — one making it harder for people to get out of jail on bail, the other an advisory-only measure in which Wisconsinites said able-bodied, childless adults should be required to look for work in order to receive welfare benefits.
There was a reason, said Brian Schimming, chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, that the Republican National Committee had picked Wisconsin to host its convention next year. He has been telling RNC members, he said, that “the atmospherics are very good for us in Wisconsin next year.” Even in a losing effort in April, the Republican base “got out big-time.” Turnout will be higher in a presidential election on both sides, and the issue set will likely be broader than abortion alone.
That’s what Republicans who have won elections in Wisconsin are betting on. When I asked Walker, the former governor, about the party’s prospects in Wisconsin, he wasn’t downtrodden. Given the explosion of the vote in left-leaning Madison and shrinking margins for Republicans in the Milwaukee suburbs, he said, the party had an urgent need to make inroads with young voters. It also needs to focus the electorate more on the economy and public safety than issues of abortion or disputes about the 2020 election, he said.
But then he said something that surprised me. The common refrain from Republicans in Wisconsin is that the state is “purple” if not “right-leaning.” But Walker didn’t view it that way. He called his own electoral success — and Johnson’s — an “exception.”
“Wisconsin has historically,” he said, “and I think largely continues to be, a blue state.”
The day after I met with Bachleitner in Ripon, I rode in the back of a van with Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and a fundraising juggernaut, from Madison to a lodge in Barneveld, Wis., for a meeting of Democratic Party activists. His 11-year-old son, Mac, sat in the back seat playing Monster Demolition on an iPad.
Up until just weeks before the April election, the state party had been operating on a traditional, lower turnout model — focusing its outreach on the most reliable voters likely to cast ballots in an off-year election. But volunteers kept running into something unexpected when they knocked on doors: Many times, when they encountered someone who wasn’t on their list, they learned those people were planning to vote, too. As a result, the party shifted its strategy, broadening its targets to contact more than a million potential voters as opposed to hundreds of thousands of them.
By Election Day, Wikler said, “Hundreds of thousands of people showed up who were not in anyone's models, who had never voted in the spring election.”
Part of the surge in turnout came from young people in heavily Democratic Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin. Protasiewicz blew out Kelly there with more than 82 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the state’s suburbs, particularly the so-called WOW counties around Milwaukee — Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha — delivered Kelly, the conservative, victories, but by declining margins from those Republicans once relied on.
That’s the typical way Democrats win in Wisconsin. But it was even more than that in April. If you lopped Dane County off the map and didn’t count any votes there, Protasiewicz still would have won. Same thing if you excluded Democrat-heavy Milwaukee.
“That is mind-boggling, numbers nobody has ever seen,” Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who previously lived in Madison, told me.
No one thinks Wisconsin will be an 11-point Democratic state in the presidential election. “Obviously, a presidential year could be very different,” he said.
“But this abortion issue, that’s where they have to be scared to death,” Maslin said. “It hurt them everywhere, but it especially hurt them in Wisconsin.”
When I asked Wikler what surprised him the most about the election, he said it was how lopsided the victory was, but also that abortion was so salient not only in Democratic-leaning areas of the state, but in redder, rural areas, too. He referred to an internal Democratic poll conducted after the election, shared with me later by a Democratic operative in the state, that showed abortion, while slightly more resonant an issue for voters in the Democratic-leaning media markets around Madison, Milwaukee and Eau Claire/La Crosse, was the main vote driver for Protasiewicz in every market in the state. It was an issue that wasn’t just working for Democrats in big cities, but in rural areas, too.
Abortion, Wikler said, was an issue that “blotted out the sun.” And it isn’t going anywhere.
“There will be a moment in the Republican primary debates where GOP candidates raise their hand to commit to signing an abortion ban passed by Congress,” he said. “And that moment is going to radically shape the presidential primary, but it's really going to explode in the general election.”
He said, “The prospect of a national abortion ban will … loom over the 2024 presidential election and the House races and the Senate races in away few issues ever do.”
Back in Madison, I visited the studio where Mike Crute, a progressive radio host, produces “The Devil’s Advocate Radio Show.” For years, he’d persisted with relatively little reach in a state dominated by right-wing talk. His influence still is relatively small. But Crute recently linked up with a major Democratic donor, Sage Weil, a tech entrepreneur living in Madison. The two began buying up radio stations around the state. They now have 18, said Weil, who told me he has invested $12 million or $13 million so far, focusing on local content and replacing the stations’ Fox News programming with ABC or CBS.
The goal, Weil said, “isn’t to be a pro-Democrat media organization, but rather to focus on a set of core values that include democracy, fact-based journalism, transparency, community.” Ultimately, he said, that could mean supporting some Republicans. But he added, “it’s hard, because the Republican Party has gone so batshit crazy right now.”
Over dinner that night, Crute said, “As long as abortion’s illegal here, Republicans are not going to win any statewide races. … They are basically stuck.”
Crute is overstating the argument. Johnson won last year, after all. But even then, Republicans in Wisconsin knew abortion was a problem for them, with a majority of voters opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade, and abortion policy, though not as dominating an issue as inflation or crime in the midterms, still ranking among voters’ top concerns. The loss in April — in a race that, unlike the midterm elections, hinged almost entirely on abortion access — left no doubt about its toxicity for the GOP.
“It’s become a hard issue,” said Rozar, the state representative, who co-authored a bill this year to add exceptions for rape and incest in what she called a “compromise” — but that neither hard-line Republicans in the state Legislature nor Democratic Gov. Tony Evers have any appetite for.
For Republicans in Wisconsin, there doesn’t seem to be a way out. On one of the days I was in Madison, a challenge to the state’s abortion ban was being heard in court. Outside, anti-abortion activists held signs that read, “Social justice starts in the womb,” while a family prayed the Rosary.
Even if abortion was politically problematic for conservatives, said one of the demonstrators, Jill Yanke, it wasn’t something to compromise on: “A life is a life is a life." Chris O’Brien, standing nearby in a hat that said, “Real Men Pray Everyday,” called abortion a “human rights issue.” Matt Sande, legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, told me polls “don’t dictate our principles,” even if he suspects abortion “absolutely” will factor in the 2024 elections and that “there may be some short-term losses.”
Up the street from the courthouse the next evening, at a rally at the state Capitol, a crowd of conservatives swayed on the lawn, eyes closed and arms raised, while kids took turns rolling down a grassy hill. On the steps, a speaker raised his fist and screamed, “Jesus!” then handed the microphone to a man who thanked God that “Wisconsin is a pro-life state.”
At the back of the crowd, Billie Johnson, who was recently elected chair of the GOP in Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District, said, “We’re trying to change hearts and minds, but it’s hard sledding.”
He blamed the media for “demonizing” Republicans. But the outcome, he said, was that “the Republican Party, our brand, is damaged.”
That’s something I’d asked Bachleitner about, too. He told me he spends time at every party meeting addressing abortion and what he calls a “moral identity crisis in the Republican Party,” likening abortion to the treatment of enslaved people — an analogy popular among the most strident anti-abortion rights activists — and suggesting that those who support exceptions to bans don’t value either the “Southern slave or the pre-born baby.”
Wisconsin, he said, should be “a place where they’ll fight for you.”
Bachleitner has other fights, too — what he called the “tsunami” of Democratic money coming into Wisconsin to assist in the 2022 election. Or infighting within the GOP about how to address abortion. Or organizing tactics. Or Trump. Or the schoolhouse.
On the day we met in Ripon, I drove Bachleitner from the schoolhouse’s old site to its new one, where a paint job and landscaping were in the works, and where a track loader was on hand. A representative of the chamber had followed us, then stopped me when I pulled into the lot.
“There’s a no trespassing sign that fell down, and that’s why those cones are there,” she said. “So, if you wouldn’t mind.”
I left. Bachleitner texted me later. He’d received a call from the local police warning him not to return.
Tapping on glass ceilings and feting 2024 contenders: Behind Ernst's GOP surge
Joni Ernst sees WMDs as the secret to expanding the Republican Party’s appeal.
No, she doesn’t mean that kind of weapon: “Women. Millennials. And Dudes with beards and tattoos. WMDs,” the Iowa senator explained in an interview.
The acronym is ubiquitous in her office, a reminder of the work that lies ahead for the party to make inroads with those constituencies in 2024. And Ernst is stepping into a central role as her state becomes ground zero for a fight to define the GOP’s future — a multi-candidate effort to topple former President Donald Trump from his primary frontrunner spot.
On June 3, she will host the Roast and Ride, an Iowa cattle call that takes place partly on motorcycles and features several top-tier presidential primary contenders. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will attend the event, according to a person familiar with the schedule, one of his highest-profile scheduled appearances after his presidential campaign launch last week. Ernst also has invited Trump, who’s bitterly attacking DeSantis, though the former president's presence is uncertain.
Altogether, it’s a sign of the 52-year-old Ernst’s rising political fortunes: After succeeding Democrat Tom Harkin, she now has a presidential candidate forum to rival the former senator’s Iowa Steak Fry. Colleagues see her on a steady climb in the party, possibly to heights never reached by a Republican woman in congressional leadership, and she’s regularly mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick.
“She could definitely be the first [female] whip. If not something more,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a close friend of Ernst’s from their work on combating military sexual assault.
First, there’s 2024. Ernst’s upcoming event will also feature Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — another personal friend of hers — former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy and former California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder. She also had lunch with DeSantis in March.
With the presidential contest heating up, Ernst may yet face more forks in the road. She took herself out of contention as a running mate in 2016, when Trump was the nominee. It was a crucial moment in the campaign and in her career, an opportunity that she has no regrets about passing on.
Yet Ernst could easily find herself on the 2024 nominee's short list, and she isn’t slamming that door.
“I will say I'm not pursuing anything. I will do what is right to defend my country, keep my country safe and continue to work for Iowans,” she said. “I have been driven to serve and I'll continue to serve in whatever capacity I'm called to.”
She's breaking through on her own, rising this year to become the Senate’s No. 4 Republican and only the second woman in chamber history to chair the GOP policy committee. For a party struggling to grow its reach in presidential elections as well as with suburban women, it’s a meaningful elevation of a woman in leadership. And now Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) is right behind Ernst at No. 5.
Ernst is in line to chair the Senate Republican Conference come 2025, due to term limits on the leaders above her. The only other woman to rise that high: former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine … 50 years ago.
She said she would consider seeking the No. 3 role, for which Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said she’s a lock: “Without a doubt.” If she wins reelection in 2026 and maintains support in the conference, she could be the first female GOP whip in congressional history.
Her current job involves legislative strategy and the stewardship of weekly party lunches. That’s tougher than it sounds: She oversees a 49-member conference with plenty of different ideas about how to run things and enough frustrated conservatives to spark a challenge to Mitch McConnell's leadership late last year.
As for her personal style, her Iowa-appropriate corny humor often comes through on the Senate floor in gags like a “Price is Up” game show wheel or an Internet Uno meme. That patter isn't typical in staid Washington, but Ernst says it’s part of how she tries to reach young people, suburban women and, yes, biker dudes.
“We really need to go where we're not. And I can go where we're not,” she explained.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) put it another way: Ernst “is particularly effective with demographic groups that sometimes a bunch of us middle-aged white guys have a hard time connecting with.”
All of that will be tested over the next 12 months. Ernst is in a tricky spot as a rising Republican leader from an early-voting state who is focused on broadening the party’s tent. She’s staying neutral in the presidential contest and vowing to support the eventual GOP nominee, which means not joining Thune in support of Scott.
When it comes to the biggest question hanging over the primary, however, she forcefully rebuts the notion that Trump owns the GOP: “Our party is so much more than Donald Trump. Our party is the party of Tim Scott and Joni Ernst and John Thune and Marsha Blackburn. And we have got a breadth of ideas and a positive outlook.”
And when she talks about the new day she wants to see in the GOP, her vision doesn't exactly sound like another Trump presidency.
“We need to look forward,” she said. “You have to have a candidate that will speak about and inspire people to be engaged and involved and talk about the goodness of America and how we bring people together, not: ‘How do we divide us.’”
Ernst’s raised some eyebrows with her voting record, despite the frequent partisan rhetoric required of a party leader. She did not support last Congress' bipartisan infrastructure law but took the minority position in her party to back a Biden-era gun safety law and same-sex marriage protections.
Those votes made her life harder with conservative voters as she travels the state’s 99 counties each year.
“If the bill had been titled 'conservative religious liberties bill,' and it's the same text. Republicans would have been: ‘Good on you, Joni,’” she said of the same-sex marriage bill.
And when it comes to her gun vote, she said: “I've asked people in Iowa, how many of you are now denied the right to obtain a weapon? What weapons did we take out of the system?” The answer is often crickets, she said.
Those moves didn’t alter her reputation among Iowa Democrats, though. They see a Republican partisan holding the seat once held by iconic progressive Harkin. Summing up her bipartisan votes, state Rep. J.D. Scholten said: “To say that she would be a potential moderate on key issues? I don’t see that happening.”
Scholten notched a high-water mark for Iowa Democrats, by nearly ousting then-GOP Rep. Steve King in 2018 as the party won the state's three other House seats. But Iowa’s entire delegation is Republican now, and Ernst helped make that happen.
Take Rep. Ashley Hinson. After defending her statehouse seat in 2018, Hinson was cleaning up yard signs when she got a call from Ernst asking her to run for the U.S. House.
After deliberating, Hinson eventually launched what appeared to be a long-shot campaign — and won. Now it’s Ernst who may face a big decision: Will she keep ascending in the Senate or make her mark on a different stage?
Hinson’s answer: “The world is Sen. Ernst’s oyster.”