Wisconsin Republicans already rejected Donald Trump once. His escalating attacks on Paul Ryan are motivating a sizable number of them to do it again.
Trump will campaign in Green Bay Monday night, but many Republicans won’t be glad to see him one day after he launched a Twitter tirade against Ryan, the speaker of the House and the pride of the Wisconsin GOP.
After getting blown out in the state’s primary last spring, Trump already faced a steep challenge in winning over local Republicans. The attacks on Ryan, activists and party officials say, are further compounding his challenge in the state.
“Wisconsinites know Paul Ryan, Paul’s been an elected official here a long time, he’s well-liked and highly regarded in Wisconsin,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), who represents Green Bay and opposes Trump. “He ought to be going and campaigning against Hillary Clinton, focusing on the issues that differentiate him from her, not this internecine battle between him and Ryan.”
But Trump has made a habit of sticking it to Wisconsin Republicans. He’s been critical of Gov. Scott Walker and needled Ryan on and off throughout much of the campaign, and even spent part of his Sunday tweeting complaints about the Speaker and former Republican vice presidential nominee. Ryan’s most recent sin was making it clear last week that he was done defending Trump — though he didn’t officially pull his endorsement.
“The Democrats have a corrupt political machine pushing crooked Hillary Clinton. We have Paul Ryan, always fighting the Republican nominee!,” Trump vented on Twitter. “Paul Ryan, a man who doesn’t know how to win (including failed run four years ago), must start focusing on the budget, military, vets etc.”
The focus on bashing Ryan in the homestretch of the election isn’t helping in a state that’s been slow to embrace Trump, despite support from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin GOP chair himself who has defended Trump through most of the candidate’s controversies.
“There’s no question, anytime Donald Trump takes after Paul Ryan, it just makes the people in Wisconsin a little more angry at him,” said Brandon Scholz, a longtime GOP operative who runs a governmental and public affairs shop in Madison.
Trump has never led a poll in Wisconsin during the general election, according to RealClearPolitics, and a Marquette Law School poll last week found him trailing Clinton by seven percentage points — a departure from signs in September that he was closing the gap with Hillary Clinton.
In southeastern Wisconsin, home to the Milwaukee suburbs and some of the state’s most populous, heavily Republican counties, Clinton led Trump by just 42 percent to 40 percent, according to that October poll. In three of those deep-red counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, known as the “WOW counties” — Trump led Clinton by only 39-37 percent.
“He doesn’t have a prayer if he can’t do well in those Republican counties, the WOW counties outside Milwaukee,” Scholz said. “Those are ground zero for Republicans. If you intend to…do well in Wisconsin, you’ve got to take those three counties with 70, 80 percent of the vote.”
It’s a sharp decline from Mitt Romney’s performance last cycle. In an October 2012 Marquette Law Poll — which did not include third parties, in contrast to this year — Romney, running on a ticket with Ryan, led Barack Obama 56-40 percent in the broader Milwaukee suburbs. In the WOW counties, the GOP nominee was up 65-29 percent.
The region has been a persistent weak spot for Trump: Over the last three-month period, Trump had a lead of 41-37 percent in the Milwaukee suburbs when polls from August through October were combined; in roughly the same period in 2012, Romney led Obama 55-39 percent.
“The strongest red area of the state is not coming through for Trump as it did for Romney and as it does in state races,” said Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law Poll.
Romney still lost Wisconsin, as has every Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Trump is on track to do the same, many Republicans say.
“There’s no clear path for Donald Trump to win Wisconsin,” said Ribble, who is retiring. “He’d have to knock it out of the park in southeast Wisconsin. He’d have to get 68, 70 percent of the vote.”
Trump’s primary loss was driven in part by the robust Never Trump presence in southeastern Wisconsin, with conservative radio hosts leading the charge. And some of those media personalities, with their sizable reach and conservative bona fides, remain loudly opposed to Trump now, and fiercely protective of Ryan.
They are “legitimizing a vote against Trump—for Republicans, it’s a very, very strong current to swim against,” complained one Trump supporter, a prominent GOP businessman in the state.
Charlie Sykes, perhaps the most nationally prominent of those radio hosts, has remained a vocal Trump critic.
“His behavior is incomprehensible to me,” he said. “First of all, why is he here, three weeks before the election, when he’s down seven points? If he was remotely serious about winning Wisconsin, why would he have spent the last 24 hours ripping Paul Ryan? Ryan got 84 percent of the vote in his district [in his August primary].”
It’s not forgotten among Wisconsin Republicans that Trump lavished praise on Ryan’s primary challenger before ultimately backing the Speaker, or the GOP nominee’s sharp criticism of Walker, the two-term governor who is popular with many rank-and-file Republicans.
“This is the history of Donald Trump in the state of Wisconsin,” said Kurt Bauer, the president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, an influential pro-business group, pointing to Trump’s swipes at Walker and Ryan over the last year. “Fast forward to today, again he’s attacking a prominent Wisconsin Republican, the highest-ranking Wisconsin Republican in our state’s history, third in line for the presidency, we’re all very proud of Paul Ryan. It doesn’t make sense for him to come into the state and attack the Speaker of the House who happens to be from Janesville [Wis.]…it’s a baffling strategy and it doesn’t seem to be working in Wisconsin.”
Certainly, Ryan has faced criticism for failing to rally more robustly behind Trump in the run-up to Election Day. He disinvited Trump from a Wisconsin rally after a tape surfaced that caught Trump bragging about sexual assault—and was booed at the event by Trump supporters as a result. Prior to the start of Monday’s Green Bay event, which Ryan was not scheduled to attend, Trump supporters chanted anti-Ryan slogans.
“Ryan is not getting a whole lot of loyalty points from some of the folks in the party who believe the largest crisis we face is Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump’s mouth,” said the prominent Republican businessman who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, also noting that Ryan’s resistance has further bolstered “Never Trump” Republicans.
Many Wisconsin Republicans agree Trump is doing better than typical Republican candidates often do among blue-collar voters, particularly in the northern part of the state and in Green Bay, where he will be speaking Monday. At the outset of the general election, many Trump backers were hopeful that his protectionist inclinations on trade would put the industrial state in play in a way that more traditional GOP nominees haven’t.
But his problems in southeastern Wisconsin — Republicans noted that he canceled a Monday event there (his campaign has cited a scheduling conflict; his Wisconsin spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story) — might be too big to overcome, especially as he continues to batter the state GOP’s favorite son, Ryan.
“I think it’s wise for Donald Trump to come to Wisconsin, and also for him to go to Green Bay, but it would have been way smarter for him to go to places [where] he needs the help—southeast Wisconsin rather than the northeast, which he’s already winning,” Ribble said, adding that the nominee should stop playing only to his base. “That doesn’t bring victory. It might make you feel better when you go to bed at night. It doesn’t help you win statewide elections.”
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