Wisconsin’s Republican establishment is publicly lining up behind Ted Cruz. Privately, it’s killing many of them to do it.
A substantial slice of Wisconsin Republican Party veterans and business leaders can’t stand Cruz’s combative style in the Senate, abhor his hard line on immigration, could do without his heavy religious rhetoric and have misgivings about his general election prospects. But they’re willing to swallow all of that to back their best hope of beating Donald Trump, though some can’t help but pine for Paul Ryan — or someone like him — coming out of a contested convention.
Cruz “may not be their first choice, but he may be their only choice,” said Brandon Scholz, a longtime GOP operative who runs a governmental and public affairs shop in Madison. “Others who have not been on the Cruz ship are, at least at this point, buying into, Wisconsin is the firewall to stop Trump.”
A prominent Wisconsin Republican business leader, who required anonymity in order to speak freely, added that he expects that the business community will turn out next Tuesday, and “a narrow hold-your-nose vote for Cruz” majority will prevail among those Republicans.
“There will be a stop-Trump vote, but I do not think it reflects enthusiasm for Cruz,” this person said. “It’s going to be an unenthusiastic vote. It’s a pick-your-poison vote that does not have the business community fired up. They’re basically [asking], ‘What color suicide vest do you wear?’”
It’s a far cry for the enthusiasm many in the state show for Ryan, who, as well as being a native son, matches Cruz’s fiscal conservatism with a less combative approach to governing, a deep focus on “empowerment” for impoverished communities and an emphasis on expanding the party. It’s a vision, and certainly a tone, more in keeping with Marco Rubio than with Cruz, and it’s one that many in the party seem to be struggling to fully let go of.
“With our style here, the sort of inclusive, aspirational style of conservatism Paul Ryan would represent, the big question in my mind was, what would happen when Rubio dropped out, would Rubio backers be willing to make the switch to Cruz, who, quite frankly, is not a natural fit here?” said Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative radio host and a leader in the stop-Trump movement in Wisconsin.
“I don’t think people know [Cruz] very well here, I think the evangelical style might have been a little harder-edged than we’re used to,” Sykes said.
Despite that awkward fit between the hard-line conservative Texas senator and a Wisconsin GOP that has prioritized unity, the establishment has united for him and against Trump in a way that it hasn’t in other states.
Leading Wisconsin Republican voices from Sykes himself to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are backing Cruz, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Walker said Tuesday that he is “proud” to back the Texas senator. Both Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who like many others in the state establishment were backing Rubio after Walker dropped out of the race, are now supporting Cruz.
It appears to be yielding results: Cruz surged to a 10-point lead over a stagnant Trump ahead of next week’s primary, according to the Marquette Law School poll — the state’s most reliable pollster.
For some of Cruz’s newfound supporters, however, it remains a marriage of expediency, and it hasn’t stopped establishment eyes from wandering.
Some are gaming out a scenario in which Cruz wins Wisconsin and goes on to keep Trump under the needed number of delegates to become the nominee — paving the way, potentially, for someone else to emerge from a brokered convention.
In the weeks before he made his endorsement, even Walker floated the possibility of another candidate emerging as the nominee from an open convention, saying, “if it’s an open convention, it’s very likely it would be someone who’s not currently running.”
Former Congressman Scott Klug, a Cruz critic who is supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, says that pining for Ryan, the home-state congressman and House speaker, is widespread.
“Very consciously, a lot of people are hoping it’s Paul,” Klug said, adding that he personally thinks a brokered convention — respect for Ryan aside — would be “absolute chaos.”
Ryan himself has said repeatedly that he does not want the nomination and wants someone who ran for president this year to be the nominee. He has also said that this “no” is different from the ones he initially offered about becoming House speaker, calling it “a totally different situation.”
Still, Ryan’s fans are hoping they can coax him to the top of the party ticket the way they once did to the top of the House. Ryan also, as Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, has experience on the presidential campaign trial, and many in Wisconsin and beyond see him as a future president.
But barring a stunning last-minute change from Ryan, for center-right Wisconsin Republicans, for now, the choice is Cruz.
Many lining up behind Cruz buy his campaign’s principal line about why he should get their support: Trump must be stopped, and Cruz — with his deep organization in Wisconsin and nationally, his well-funded campaign and his reliably conservative record — is the only one with a shot at doing it.
The endorsement from Right Wisconsin, the website associated with Sykes, acknowledged that Cruz was not a first or even second choice, but it called him the candidate best-positioned to take on Trump.
“If you look at the political establishment in southeastern Wisconsin, it very heavily leans Cruz, from the talk show hosts all the way to a lot of state leadership,” Klug said. “The whole southeast Wisconsin infrastructure is tilting Cruz to freeze out Trump.”
Sykes said that when Vos, the assembly speaker, “who I really did not expect to come around,” came on board, “it indicated this is a binary choice,” suggesting that “if Wisconsin is going to be a firewall, you had to support Cruz, you had to at least tactically decide for Cruz. You can feel the dominoes falling in that respect in the last four days.”
That Cruz is now the choice of Wisconsin’s establishment is a remarkable development, given that the Texas senator made his name running as a fiercely anti-establishment insurgent who routinely clashes with party leadership in Washington, and whose views, particularly on immigration, have only grown more conservative throughout the primary campaign, to the dismay of Chamber of Commerce types who want a more big-tent approach.
But in Wisconsin, home to Walker and to Ryan, who are both considered quite conservative, the entire GOP has moved right over the past 10 years. Walker, who during his failed presidential bid was considered too conservative by more centrist donors and party leaders aligned with other candidates elsewhere in the country, is the establishment here.
Walker’s statewide approval rating has plummeted since his presidential bid, but Scholz said he still holds significant sway over Republicans in the state — it is very much his party — and his endorsement is likely to sway some fence-sitters.
“If they’re in the establishment, they are sitting there going, ‘I’m not certain what I’m going to do,’ I think the governor’s endorsement speaks a lot, means a lot,” he said.
And while Trump’s policy positions have been all over the ideological map, Cruz’s policy views also square fairly well with party leadership, said Mark Graul, another longtime GOP operative in the state.
Cruz “has got a lot to offer center-right conservatives,” he said. “Probably on eight out of 10 issues, center-right voters agree with Ted Cruz. That’s not the case with Donald Trump.”
Nationally, those reservations — along with concerns over Cruz’s hard-line views — have caused some moderate donors and party leaders to decide to stay out of the primary altogether and focus on House and Senate races instead. (Other prominent establishment voices, including Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, have spoken out in support of Cruz.)
But on Tuesday, Wisconsin is expected to have the largest primary turnout since 1980. And many establishment-oriented Republicans have an interest in the state Supreme Court elections also held that day, adding motivation for voters already afraid of Trump winning the nomination.
That center-right turnout for Ted Cruz, however, will be grudging.
“We don’t need to continue to agitate and polarize, we need somebody who can try and build some consensus,” said another Wisconsin Republican business leader who does not like Cruz or Trump and is holding out hope for Ryan.
But on Tuesday, the Republican said, “I’ll vote for Cruz.”
Powered by WPeMatico