As the Republican National Convention kicks off this week, conservatives opposed to nominating Donald Trump are still fuming about his candidacy and say their fight won’t end in Cleveland — a position that could help put Wisconsin in the Democratic column in November.
“There are many people in the ‘never Trump’ movement who, if Trump successfully gets the nomination in Cleveland, are not going to drop their opposition because he hijacked the party,” said Brian Fraley, a former Wisconsin GOP political director who has been one of the fiercest Trump critics in the state.
Fraley said he is considering voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. He also said Trump picking conservative Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for vice president shows he is worried about the anti-Trump holdouts, but it doesn’t make Trump “any less vulgar or any more trustworthy.”
Even as some Wisconsin Republicans continue to stoke the anti-Trump furor, others have played key roles in stamping it out.
Last week the national movement to derail Trump at the convention fell far short of the votes needed to free delegates to “vote their conscience.”
Trump opponents couldn’t even muster the 28 votes needed in the 112-member rules committee to send the proposed rule change to a vote among all 2,472 delegates.
“Coming out of this convention, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president and as such he needs all Republican support,” said Steve King, a rules committee member from Wisconsin. “What’s the alternative? It’s not a good one. I’m not a big fan of dentists, but I go to the dentist and have them do their thing to me and I accept it.”
King and fellow Wisconsin rules committee member Mary Buestrin struck a blow to the anti-Trump movement in the weeks leading up to the convention by sending a letter to delegates reminding them that the nominating process that Trump won was developed by the party’s grassroots members.
Fraley said some anti-Trump members of the Wisconsin delegation, such as former RNC committeeman Michael Grebe and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, deciding not to attend the convention also weakened the movement.
Last week RNC chairman Reince Priebus, of Kenosha, derided the anti-Trump forces as “sore losers.”
Steineke disagreed that the opposition to Trump among some Republicans is simply the usual discontent after a hard-fought primary battle.
“I don’t think this year is usual in any capacity,” Steineke said. “Most people recognize that both nominees on both sides are hugely unpopular with the general electorate, which is something we haven’t seen before to this magnitude. Hopefully we all learn some lessons from it.”
Before the anti-Trump movement became a trending hashtag, Wisconsin conservatives were among the first Republicans to raise red flags about the brash billionaire who would go on to win the party’s 2016 presidential nomination.
Members of the anti-Trump movement in Wisconsin trace its origin to Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, declaring in early December he would not vote for Trump if he were the nominee. That was two months before the National Review devoted an entire issue to the case against Trump and #NeverTrump began trending on social media.
Wisconsin was the last state where Trump lost in the primaries on April 5. Wisconsin conservatives, especially the talk radio crowd, presented a unified front against Trump in the weeks before the primary, backing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Trump further alienated himself from Wisconsin conservatives during his first campaign stop in Janesville, when he criticized Gov. Scott Walker, said the state had a lot of problems and suggested Republicans should have raised taxes to pay for roads and schools.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, described that week in Wisconsin as the moment when Trump could have been stopped.
“That was the moment, and of course the reason it didn’t happen was because it was Cruz,” Sabato said. “If that had been (Florida Sen. Marco) Rubio or (Ohio Gov. John) Kasich, it would have happened. Cruz was too unacceptable to too many people.”
Trump’s dominant victory in New York two weeks later paved the way for a win in Indiana that forced his final two rivals, Cruz and Kasich, to drop out.
The anti-Trump forces have continued to rail against the presumptive nominee. Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes, whose grilling of Trump during an on-air interview on WTMJ in late March drew national attention, remains steadfastly opposed. But WISN conservative radio host Mark Belling, who called Trump “the biggest wussy of all time” during the primary, recently announced he’ll support Trump.
Walker and House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville, also have backed Trump after expressing early reservations.
The division was apparent in the latest Marquette Law School Poll, which found 46 percent of Republicans say the party is divided and will remain so in November, compared with 19 percent of Democrats who say the same about their own party. Only 5 percent of Republicans said their party is united, down from 12 percent a month earlier.
Democrat Hillary Clinton led Trump 43-37 among registered voters and 45-41 among likely voters, according to the poll. Only 80 percent of Republicans said they support Trump, compared with 93 percent of Democrats who support Clinton.
James Wigderson, a conservative columnist who wrote in December that Republicans should distance themselves from Trump, defended his opposition as not mattering in the national presidential election.
“For a lot of conservatives, opposition to Hillary and concerns about the Supreme Court will probably get them to support Donald Trump,” Wigderson said. “But I think for a few people, myself included, voting for Donald Trump is so anathema to everything we believe and stand for, it would be impossible to vote for him. One of the ironies of being in Wisconsin is there is no way Donald Trump can win here, so our consciences are clear.”