Two states, eleven counties – both urban and rural – and a strange mix of frustration and enthusiasm. I saw anxious eyes, witnessed expression of joy, and heard words of determination at various Lincoln Day events and Republican Party caucuses in 2019. There are many challenges ahead for conservatives, but the grassroots energy is growing.
The start of 2019 was not easy for Republicans. Scott Walker’s successor, Democrat Tony Evers, was sworn in as the new Governor of Wisconsin. Josh Kaul replaced Brad Schimel as the new Attorney General of the state. The office of the State Treasurer went away from the hands of the Republicans. The United States Senate seat up for re-election in 2018 was defended by incumbent Democrat Senator Tammy Baldwin, who started her second term in the upper chamber of Congress. At the national level, Nancy Pelosi took over as the speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Political rhetoric, highlighting the differences in the two major parties on key issues, ignited fire on social media, television, newspapers, and in colleges, homes, and places of business. People thought, and many asked: is Wisconsin moving away from the Republicans?
Wisconsin was a battleground, and many expect our state to continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Our state played a key role in the 2016 nationwide victories for Republicans. In 2016, for the first time since 1984, the state voted for a Republican candidate for president, adding ten electoral votes to Donald Trump’s tally, and helping ensure his win. In one of the top U.S. Senate races in the country during the 2016 election, Wisconsin voters re-elected U.S. Senator Ron Johnson for a second term. These big wins by Republican candidates showed that many political pundits were wrong in their predictions in 2016. But then, things took a turn in the opposite direction when, in a special election, Republicans in Wisconsin lost control of the State Senate seat in District 10 in early 2018. For the spring 2018 election, a major contest took place for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, held by Justice Michael Gableman, who had announced that he would not seek re-election. The conservative candidate – Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Michael Screnock – received the highest number of votes in the primary election, with the two liberal judicial candidates behind him in the number of total votes each. But shockingly for conservatives, Judge Screnock was defeated in the April election by Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Rebecca Dallet. That changed the balance of power in court, with conservative majority shrinking from 5-2 to 4-3. Certainly, 2018 was an extremely difficult year for Republicans.
When 2019 started, the season began for GOP county caucuses and Lincoln Day luncheons and dinners. As conservatives gathered for these events, they knew that they had to overcome the sadness of defeat. People focused on the silver lining – and that also a major one. In spite of losses in the races for major statewide offices in 2018, Republicans continue to have a strong majority (63 out of 99 seats) in the Wisconsin State Assembly, and also added to their majority in the Wisconsin State Senate (19 out of 33 seats). While large counties like Milwaukee could shift the total number of votes in a Democrat candidate’s favor for a statewide office, voters spread all over the state sent a clear message, that is, they trust Republicans to be in charge of the lawmaking body of the state government. That was a powerful message, and one that was highlighted in many events. In addition, all of the GOP-held U.S. House seats in Wisconsin remained in GOP control, in spite of losses in many House races across the country. Moreover, the Republicans retained their majority in the U.S. Senate.
The caucuses are where the county parties’ official business proceedings take place – from electing officers to approving resolutions on issues such as securing the southern border and protecting the life of the unborn. This year, at these caucuses, people discussed their views on what went wrong in the 2018 elections, and what strengths the Republicans could build on. People highlighted the importance of bottom-up organizational structure of the state party, discussed the need for better outreach plans statewide, and emphasized the value of Republicans being more vocal about their accomplishments across the state and country.
The Lincoln Day events are usually more celebratory in nature, with elements of fun and relaxation. Named after one of the greatest American presidents – Abraham Lincoln – these events feature elected officials from state and federal levels as speakers, have great food and drinks for people’s enjoyment, showcase raffle prizes, etc. This year, however, the Lincoln Day events had a more serious tone, for the abovementioned reasons. People saw these as opportunities to connect with each other, share ideas, engage in constructive criticism, and discuss how to effectively rebuild the momentum for future victories.
The timing was crucial. This year, as caucuses and Lincoln Day events were taking place, the people of Wisconsin were getting ready for a major battle for the future of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. After seeing a reduction in the number of conservative judges on the state’s Supreme Court as a result of the spring 2018 election, it was time to cast votes to see who would replace outgoing Justice Shirley Abrahamson. The contest was between two Wisconsin Appeals Court judges – conservative Brian Hagedorn and liberal Lisa Neubauer. If Judge Lisa Neubauer would win, the control of the court would remain 4-3 in favor of conservatives for the time being, but would open up a possibility for a liberal majority in 2020. If Judge Brian Hagedorn would win, the loss from the 2018 Supreme Court race would be made up, with conservatives regaining the 5-2 majority.
After a series of unfavorable election outcomes in 2018, the conservatives felt a deep sense of urgency. They sprang into action. The conservative grassroots activists, volunteers, and supporters across the state worked hard to highlight the importance of the spring election. Judge Brian Hagedorn won the race and was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Despite severe challenges, the conservative grassroots movement prevailed.
At the caucus and Lincoln Day events following the spring election, Republicans clearly were relieved, although not completely. After election losses in 2018, Brian Hagedorn’s victory in 2019 brought back hope to the Republican Party. It was a reassurance that the state is not moving to the left, in spite of such a conclusion being drawn by many in 2018. The conservatives are once again fueled by hope that 2020 could, in fact, bring more victories.
Next year would be extremely important. Not only would there be a presidential election, there would also be a fight to take back the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats, while Democrats would be fighting to retain control of the House and trying to gain control of the U.S. Senate. Furthermore, another seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court would be contested next year, prior to the November election. Incumbent Justice Dan Kelly, appointed to the court by Governor Scott Walker in 2016, is expected by many conservatives to seek election to a full 10-year term on the court. While a victory by liberals in that race would not switch the control of the court from a conservative majority to a liberal majority, a victory by conservatives would add to their surging momentum for the fall 2020 election.
As we head towards the 2019 State Convention of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, with the season of caucuses and Lincoln Day events coming to an end, there are more unknowns than we would have expected. What we know for sure are that there would be competitive races, a hurricane of campaign funds, candidates crisscrossing the state and the region, and mailboxes stuffed with political fliers and envelopes. What we do not know is the ultimate list of winners from the races that are coming up.
As I mentioned in the very first sentence of this article – I went to events in two states. I had the pleasure of being in the company of my conservative friends in northern Illinois, for a Lincoln Day dinner in Boone County, which shares border with Wisconsin. Illinois, as is widely known, is a state that is predominantly liberal. Both U.S. Senators from Illinois are Democrats. And, in the November 2018 gubernatorial election, the Democrat candidate – a billionaire businessman named J. B. Pritzker – defeated the Republican incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner. While there are Republican members from the Land of Lincoln, in the U.S. House of Representatives, most of Illinois’ congressional seats are represented by Democrats.
Despite the battle being an uphill one, Republicans in Illinois are energized. They understand that they cannot lose hope or give up, but must march forward and work hard to turn the needle, slowly, from blue to red. I have observed very strong support for President Donald J. Trump, among Illinois Republicans. They are working to recruit great candidates to challenge incumbent Democrat elected officials in future elections, planning effective outreach to the Hispanic community, talking to businessowners about liberty and free markets principles, and educating undecided and/or unengaged voters about the issues that matter to all of us. There is strong leadership, energy, and a willingness to stand up for conservative values among Republicans in the state of Illinois.
Whether Wisconsin or Illinois, my biggest observation from the caucuses and Lincoln Day events is as follows: the conservative grassroots activists are ready to strategize, energize, and turn the possibility of future victories into reality.