When the Republican National Convention opens Monday in Cleveland, Wisconsin’s power trio — Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus — and other state Republicans will again play prominent roles, but this time with a fractured party hoping to coalesce around an unconventional nominee.
Reflecting the national Republican mood, expectations among Wisconsin’s GOP delegation run the gamut from exuberance to despondence about the prospect of nominating New York real estate billionaire and reality TV celebrity Donald Trump for president.
On one hand, Republicans deeply dislike presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But anti-Trump Republicans say he doesn’t represent their conservative principles and his unpopularity among the general electorate could cost down-ticket Republicans.
A movement urging delegates to break rank and vote their conscience is expected to fall short, but still lurks.
Meanwhile Trump’s vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, is expected to quell concerns among conservative activists.
Trump has promised to bring a “showbiz” quality to the four-day event at Quicken Loans Arena. At the same time the convention comes amid heightened tensions between police and minorities in the wake of officer-involved shootings and a sniper attack in Dallas. Police are preparing for large demonstrations outside the arena.
“I expect this convention to be more interesting than any before in my lifetime, even without any attempt to block Trump’s nomination,” said Brian Westrate, 38, a delegate from Eau Claire. “Whatever else you might say about the man, unconventional is a word that applies.”
All eyes on Trump
With nearly 5,000 delegates and alternates, 15,000 members of the media and 50,000 visitors converging on the self-proclaimed Rock ‘n’ Roll Capital of the World, all eyes are on Trump, whose brass-knuckle brand of outsider, populist politics scorched a crowded field of 16 other contenders, including Walker.
The governor is one of five Wisconsinites scheduled to speak at the convention. The others are House Speaker Ryan, of Janesville, who is chairman of the convention; Priebus, the former state party chairman who was elected RNC chairman in January 2011; U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, who represents the state’s northern 7th Congressional District that backed Trump in the primary; and Democratic Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.
Other Wisconsinites are also playing prominent roles at the convention, including Steve King, the state’s RNC committeeman and member of the rules committee who has been involved in countering the anti-Trump movement. Convention CEO Jeff Larson is from Hudson and convention communications director Kirsten Kukowski previously worked for the state Republican Party and Walker’s presidential campaign.
Walker returns for a featured speaking slot with his stature diminished from 2012, when he had just won a historic recall victory. Walker’s run for president last year disintegrated quickly, leaving him with $1 million of campaign debt and a job approval level back home below 40 percent. He plans to focus his remarks on defeating Clinton.
Ryan chose not to run for president after his turn as vice presidential nominee in 2012. Since then he reluctantly accepted a new role as House Speaker.
The convention chairman is expected to deliver a 10-minute speech focused on the GOP House agenda.
Priebus, of Kenosha, who became the first RNC chairman to win a third consecutive term with a Democrat in the White House, returns as convention impresario, but with the elevated task of unifying perhaps the most divided party in 40 years.
“I’ve never been to a convention in which the delegates are still so split going into a national convention about their nominee,” said former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has been a delegate at every convention since 1976, when President Gerald Ford won the nomination over Ronald Reagan after a heated convention floor debate.
Wisconsin’s most prominent elected official on the ballot in November, Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh, said Wednesday he might make an appearance at the convention after previously saying he would sit out to focus on campaigning in Wisconsin. He faces a difficult rematch against former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Middleton.
A handful of Wisconsin’s delegates and alternates have backed out, some because of their antipathy toward Trump. They include former RNC committeeman and Walker campaign chairman Michael Grebe and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna.
Wisconsin was the last primary state where Trump lost, to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, before clinching the nomination with a victory in Indiana. Trump offended conservatives in the state by criticizing Walker during a visit to Janesville before the April 5 primary, and some conservative talk radio hosts have continued to foment skepticism about his candidacy.
Several prominent national Republicans have also decided to sit out the convention, including the party’s only two living presidents and its past two nominees. The speaking schedule includes Trump’s children and wife and several of his former rivals for the nomination, including Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Courting the establishment
Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said it’s unprecedented since the parties changed the nominating process in the 1970s for the outsider candidate to win and have to court the establishment to get on board. Usually it’s the other way around.
Covington said Ryan’s decision to support Trump was an important step, but Trump has more work to do to win the general election.
“It’s going to take party leaders to send signals to those who do vote Republican that it’s OK to vote for Trump,” Covington said. “There are soccer moms in suburbia who are appalled by the way (Trump) conducted himself.”
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said typically the factions within a political party have been able to bury the hatchet by this point in the election.
“This is really uncharted waters,” Smith said. “Obviously the Republican Party is not a unified party going into the convention.”
Of Wisconsin’s 42 delegates, 36 are bound to Cruz and six from the 3rd and 7th Congressional districts are bound to Trump. That could change if a dissident group of Republicans are successful in changing the rules on the convention floor, allowing delegates to vote their conscience, but that prospect is considered unlikely.
Wisconsin’s two members on the convention rules committee, King and Mary Buestrin, sent a letter to delegates discouraging such a revolt.
Some of the dissidents have courted Walker as a possible alternative to Trump, but Walker has said the only campaign he would consider in the near future is a third term for governor in 2018. He nonetheless recently gave a nod to the “Free the GOP” movement by agreeing delegates should vote their conscience, but later reaffirmed he would support Trump as the nominee.
If delegates are allowed to vote their conscience, some from Wisconsin say they would switch from Cruz to Trump, illustrating the unlikelihood that Trump won’t be the nominee.
“I’m learning to like Donald Trump,” said Patty Reiman, 58, of Whitefish Bay, a delegate from the 4th Congressional District who is bound to Cruz, but said she would vote for Trump if allowed.
“He reaches out to new people to bring them into the Republican tent. I feel like he doesn’t lose. He is in it to win it.”
A few members of the delegation are still struggling with the nominee.
“This is kind of a sad convention, really, because Hillary Clinton is really a weak, weak candidate and we are on the verge of selecting the only nominee who can lose to her, probably,” said Roger Stauter, 76, of Monona, a delegate from the 2nd Congressional District.