Joe Bast | April 10, 2023
The Spring elections have come and gone. Once again, conservatives are left licking their wounds.
Diane and I invested a lot of time and no small amount of money in the campaigns for Ron Johnson (Senate), Tim Michels (Governor), and Eric Toney (Attorney General) last November; and Daniel Kelly (Supreme Court), Chad Weininger (Mayor of Green Bay), Kevin Sturn (Outagamie County Executive), and two Appleton school board candidates (Deb Truyman (incumbent) and Sam Blackwell) in the April 4 elections. All but Johnson lost.
There were some victories for conservatives in school board, village and city assemblies, and county boards. In coming weeks we will learn how widespread those victories were, or weren’t. Until then, April 4 was a pretty gloomy day for conservatives in Wisconsin.
One small victory was that Dan Knodl won his race for Wisconsin Senate, giving Republicans a veto-proof majority in that house. It is good news only because it means the Senate can impeach members of the Evers administration (but probably won’t), and could be even better news if Republicans in the Assembly gain 2 seats in 2024, giving them a veto proof majority.
But honestly, that’s unlikely to happen. Republicans will be fighting to keep their majorities in both houses in 2024.
That Knodl won by only 1 or 2 percentage points is alarming. A couple years ago, Dan Knodl would have walked to an easy victory in his senate race. His Milwaukee suburb is reliably Republican, the incumbent was a Republican, keeping Milwaukee’s problems from reaching the suburb is campaign topic #1 and it strongly favors Republicans. His opponent, Jodi Habush Sinykin, was a poor fit for the district, had little grassroots support, and said she was running only to keep the seat from falling into Republican hands.
It is also telling that Knodl didn’t run on any of the issues that would appeal to the Republican grassroots — election integrity, crime, school choice, abortion, cutting taxes, or fighting “woke.” His campaign website could be promoting a Democrat.
Many people blame the WI GOP for backing RINO candidates and refusing to fund conservative candidates who make it through the primaries; for failing to raise enough money or not spending it wisely; for avoiding controversial topics such as election fraud in 2020 and abortion; and not keeping pace with the Democrats on election tactics and technology. All of these are serious charges; any one of them could explain at least some of the recent losses.
I think there is some truth to all that, but here’s the thing: The party’s internal critics have no game. They are primarily rural and outnumbered by the Democrat grassroots concentrated in the big cities. They can’t raise money and don’t donate themselves, and they are often marginal characters even in their own communities. So winning their support is unlikely to win elections. State leaders point to polls suggesting that abortion, the stolen election, and confronting “woke” policies bring out more Democrat voters on election day than Republicans. It’s sad, but I think they are probably right.
One fixable problem is the caliber of candidates fielded by the Republican Party, regardless of whether they are conservatives or RINOs. Few of them know how to dress for an event or give a coherent speech. They don’t know how to raise money and don’t even try. They don’t take advantage of candidate training programs offered by the Leadership Institute, Freedomworks, or even the state GOP. (The state sponsored a series of 6 Zoom sessions on how to run for local office. I was one of only four or five people sitting in on the calls.)
Another fixable problem is that Republicans in the legislature have no plan for the coming budget fight, other than to pass a budget that comes in slightly less than Evers’ proposed 15% spending increase. They keep promising (and delivering) small “tax cuts,” but spending is out of control and priorities are all wrong.
House Speaker Robin Voss is Wisconsin’s counterpart to Illinois’ Mike Madison. The state GOP is afraid to come out too strongly for conservative positions for fear of losing city voters, and so the party has no clear platform or rallying cry.
Where are Wisconsin’s conservative think tanks and advocacy groups? One of them spoke recently to a patriot group I belong to. Nice guy, but someone needs to teach him how to create and present a PowerPoint presentation. Bringing promotional material, even a BRE, to an event where he is the featured speaker would be, I don’t know, maybe a good idea?
There’s a lack of energy and professionalism in the state’s conservative advocacy groups. Nobody is going to confuse their leaders with, say, the head of Colorado’s Independence Institute’s, the hard-driving and dynamic Jon Caldara. (Look him up!)
Those things could be fixed, but two bigger problems would remain outstanding. The first is out-of-state money.
The left has learned that they can flood a purple state with campaign funding and not just waste it, as occurred in the past, but turn the state blue. Kelly was outspent 5 to 1. I don’t remember but I think Johnson was outspent 2 or 3 to 1.
Less visible is Democrat dark money funding of candidates down the ticket. I don’t doubt that candidates for humble county and city positions were getting thousands of dollars in support, in races where candidates traditionally don’t even think they need to raise money.
The second problem is Andrew Breitbart’s old but true saw: Politics is downstream of culture. We lost the culture war in Wisconsin, as we’ve lost it in most of the rest of the country. Everyone now has a family member or friend who had an abortion, or is gay or trans, or graduated (brainwashed) from a UW college, or works for a public school or for the state. It affects how they vote.
Per the recent WSJ poll, patriotism, hard work, religion, and having kids are increasingly rare. While one often sees flags and Trump signs in rural parts of the state, you almost never see them in cities, even here in Appleton (population about 90,000, but third largest metro area in the state).
The typical palm card (or “rack card”) produced by a Republican candidate this year, as in years past, focused on patriotism, hard work, religion, and having kids. That message resonates with me, but according to the Pew Research Center (and other polling organizations), only about 10 percent of Americans are “faith and flag conservatives,” another 18 percent are “committed conservatives” and the “populist right,” and after that it’s all RINOs, liberals, and leftists.
There are too few of us to win elections.
The path forward is very dark. I’ll be surprised if the Republicans hold both the Senate and House in 2024, and I doubt a Republican candidate for president can win the state, even if the election irregularities that gave Biden the win in 2020 were fixed, which they won’t be because Evers has and will continue to veto all election reform bills that reach his desk.
Diane and I are working with small patriotic groups by helping them launch websites and host events. (See www.wisconsinpatriotstoolbox.com.) There are many such groups across the state, and there is even a new umbrella organization that is helping them work together. (See www.libertyalliancewisconsin.com.)
There is plenty of hope and promise at the local level. If we are going to change culture, that is where we need to start. How long will it take for that change to affect our state, and then our national, elected officials? That is at least partly up to us.
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Joe Bast was president and CEO of The Heartland Institute for many years. He is now retired and lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.