Suddenly starless Wisconsin GOP plots rebuild for 2020

FILE - In this April 27, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump, right, accompanied by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., left, arrives at Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wis. Republicans determined to deliver Wisconsin for Trump next year will emphasize at their state convention that starts Friday that they must do a better job engaging with grassroots voters if they hope to rebound from a devastating 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
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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 that starts Friday 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 was to 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.

While Republicans look inward at how to improve, they will have to move forward without two longtime, prominent leaders. For the first time in 20 years, when Republicans gather for their convention neither Walker nor Ryan will be in elected office.

The loss of the governor’s office is particularly stinging for Republicans, as Walker was the most prolific fundraiser in the history of Wisconsin politics, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars for the GOP.

Jefferson said one thing the state party must address is how to spend its money more effectively, even as everyone agrees the Trump campaign intends to make Wisconsin a priority and provide the money necessary to compete.

Democrats, in a nod to Wisconsin’s importance in the presidential race, will hold their national convention in Milwaukee in 2020. Their state convention this year is June 1.

Devin Remiker, the Democrats’ executive director of political affairs, said Republicans have “talked a big game” about engaging grassroots voters before but failed to follow through.

While Republicans were dejected after Walker’s narrow defeat in 2018, they have been reenergized by the win last month by conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn.

“As down as people were after November statewide, the Hagedorn win has given us a great amount of hope,” said Walker, who will be attending a Sunday prayer breakfast at the convention but not the bulk of the gathering. “To win in 2020 we’re going to need that.”q