If Donald Trump loses Wisconsin’s GOP presidential primary Tuesday, the Republican dinner here Friday night could help explain why.
Local party loyalists showed little love and sometimes outright disdain for the New York billionaire as they chowed down on fried fish in the American Serb Hall, where two bars flank the banquet room and old-timers played cards in a bowling alley next door.
It didn’t help that while rival candidates John Kasich and Ted Cruz attended the dinner, Trump sent Sarah Palin to speak on his behalf. The crowd giggled during her disjointed speech.
Mary Jo Thompson, 61, held two glasses of white Zinfandel because, she said, the prospect of Trump winning the nomination makes her so anxious.
Although Trump is the Republican front-runner, he simply hasn’t connected with the party faithful here. He trails Cruz in polls.
“I don’t see Donald Trump going into any Republican venue and really seeking out any Republicans,” said David Karst, chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party. “If he’s serious, he needs to reach out and start building a coalition.”
Many of the hundreds at the dinner view Trump as immature, insufficiently conservative or out of touch with their concerns. The distance between Trump and local Republicans is most evident when it comes to Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor.
Walker, who briefly ran for president before dropping out last fall, has an 80% approval rating among Republicans who plan to vote in Tuesday’s primary, according to a recent Marquette University poll.
Trump is supported by only 27% of that group, and he further damaged himself by criticizing Walker in radio interviews this week.
“It was a disaster,” said Alberta Darling, a Wisconsin state senator who is supporting Cruz. “Most people know our state is a lot better off now than it was.”
Loyalty to Walker, who attended Friday’s dinner and endorsed Cruz earlier in the week, has been firm after Republicans rallied around the governor to protect him from an unsuccessful recall effort in 2012.
“We’ve been through blood on this stuff,” Darling said.
John Schaff, 53, a contractor from Milwaukee, said he was on the fence about Trump until this week.
Trump’s criticism of Walker and Walker’s endorsement of Cruz convinced him that the Texas senator was the right choice in the primary.
For others, their dislike for Trump goes back further.
“I saw that first debate, and that killed it for me,” said Paula Potkonjak, 53, who works in a fragrance store and lives in Milwaukee. “There was no substance to the man. And then he attacks Megyn Kelly [the Fox News anchor].”
Dragomir Marinkovich, 52, of Hales Corner said he’s been a Cruz supporter since the beginning and views him as the only “true conservative” of the remaining candidates.
Trump, he said, is “a Democrat in Republican clothing.” In Wisconsin, “there’s a strong conservative base. He can’t fake it here.”
Follow @chrismegerian for more updates.
For more political coverage, go to www.latimes.com/politics.
MORE FROM POLITICS