Ryan, Walker, Priebus: Surprising rise of Wisconsin Republicans

JANESVILLE, Wis. -- Four years ago, it might have sounded preposterous that Wisconsin, a state that preferred Barack Obama to John McCain by 14 points, would become a wellspring of successful GOP candidates and leaders.

But the impossible has happened. The state features three prominent speakers during the GOP convention -- RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, Gov. Scott Walker and vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan, who hopes to wow the nation with a speech Wednesday night. In 2008, the state’s two U.S. senators were from the Democratic Party. Polls indicate that after Nov. 6, both will be Republican.

Red isn’t necessarily a strange color for Wisconsin – after all, the Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party in the state in 1854. But what may be surprising is the strong conservative bent of the politicians who have come out of a state that has not chosen a Republican for the White House since 1984.

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“Each of the three -- Priebus, Walker and Ryan -- have taken relatively separate paths to power, with slightly different timing,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. “But all three of them caught the edge of the new conservative edge in the GOP and hugely profited from it.”

Walker, elected in the tea party wave of 2010 that also saw Sen. Russ Feingold defeated by Ron Johnson, became one of the most high-profile Republican governors in the nation after going after collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. His efforts provoked mass protests in the state Capitol, but an effort to recall him earlier this year was defeated. Now, Franklin said, more voters in Wisconsin support him than don’t support him.

Walker received a wild welcome at the convention Tuesday night, with the crowd clapping and cheering when he announced the Wisconsin delegation and when he gave his speech.

“On June 5, voters in Wisconsin got to determine who was in charge — was it the big government special interests in Washington ... or the hard-working taxpayers of our state,” he said. “The good news is that — on June 5 — the hard-working taxpayers won.”

The response was one of the most enthusiastic of the night.

Preibus became chairman of the RNC in 2011, and has been successful in out-fundraising Democrats since taking over. Like Walker and Ryan, he’s a strong supporter of small government. In his speech Tuesday night, he blamed Obama for expanding federal government.

“That makes me think that Barack Obama has a problem with the American dream,” he said.

Ryan, who has represented a Democratic-leaning district in Congress since 1998, also supports shrinking the size of government. As he’s toured the country since being picked as Romney’s running mate, he’s emphasized in nearly every speech that reducing the federal debt was the only way to create jobs. His federal budget proposed drastically cutting the size of government programs, including Medicare.


Like Walker and Preibus, Ryan not only profited from the tea party wave but “anticipated that wave by considerable degree,” Franklin said.

The state’s sudden preference for conservative Republicans may be a result of its perennial budget deficits, which only got worse as the state lost manufacturing jobs during the recession. In 2009, the Pew Center on the States rated the state as one of the worst-off fiscally in the nation, in a group that included California and Nevada.

“Someone had to put the house in order,” said Elizabeth Oberle, a stay-at-home mom from Elkhorn, Wis., who attended a recent Ryan rally. “This is the first time that I can remember that my property tax didn’t increase.”

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Polls show that Obama still leads the state for November’s election, though by just three points, a far smaller margin than he led before Ryan was nominated. Polls also have Republican Tommy Thompson ahead of Democrat Tammy Baldwin for the state’s vacant Senate seat. It’s unclear whether the host of new faces from Wisconsin on the GOP scene has anything to do with that.

Still, the fiscal austerity put in place by Walker and championed by Ryan and Priebus hasn’t done any wonders for the state yet. Although the budget is balanced, the state has 21,900 fewer jobs than it did a year ago, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Walker’s moves earned him praise in the state, in part because he was able to pick up on a resentment toward public sector employees that is brewing in many places around the country.

“Walker cut public sector employees. It was pretty widely believed that they made more money than people in the private sector or at least have exceedingly generous benefits,” said John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette. “Cutting public sector employees was at least somewhat popular.”

Ryan will likely refer frequently to his home state in his speech. He frequently talks about hunting and hiking there, and about his large family, which is very prominent in his hometown. In his last public rally before flying to Tampa, he returned to his hometown of Janesville and used the small town as an example of how America should be.


“I just want to say how proud I am to come from Janesville, Wisconsin,” he said, waving at family in the audience. “We live together in freedom, and what we do in our communities is we look out for one another. That’s what’s so special, that’s what government can’t replace or displace.”

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