MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Republicans still reeling from an April election that saw conservatives lose majority control of the state Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years hope to use their upcoming state convention to unify and refocus on the 2024 presidential race in which Wisconsin will once again be a battleground.
Democrats, recognizing that four of the past six presidential elections in the state have been decided by less than a percentage point, are trying not to become overconfident in the face of recent gains. They are gathering for their annual state convention starting June 10 in Green Bay.
“The wind is at our backs, but in Wisconsin no one should ever take anything for granted,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler. “I haven’t met a single Democrat who thinks we can rest easy.”
Democratic candidates, including Gov. Tony Evers and President Joe Biden, have won 14 of the past 17 statewide elections. In April, Democratic-backed Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz's 11-point win over the GOP-supported candidate proved once again the power of abortion as an issue for Democrats. She ran as a supporter of abortion rights, and for revisiting Republican-drawn political district maps, in a race that broke turnout records.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who won her 2018 race by 11 points, is up for reelection next year and has yet to draw a Republican opponent. Republicans are already voicing concerns about the lack of an announced top tier challenger and the possibility of yet another expensive, divisive primary like this year's Supreme Court contest.
Wisconsin has long been one of a handful of battleground states, one of the few places where either party can win a statewide contest.
With that in mind, Milwaukee will play host to the first Republican presidential primary debate in August. Republicans will return next summer for their national convention. Democrats, in another nod to the importance of the Midwest, will gather just across the border in Chicago for their national convention in 2024.
Wisconsin Republican Party leaders are trying to get the rank and file to refocus on the fights ahead, while recent losses and divisions within the party among conservatives loyal to former President Donald Trump pose challenges.
“I’m not coming over to put lipstick on the corpse,” said Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Brian Schimming, who took over the job in December. “We have a philosophy of winning here. And that takes doing a lot of things. But we are doing them. We’ve proved that we can do them.”
The theme of the state Republican convention this month, “Red to the Roots,” speaks directly at the priority of connecting with its grassroots activists, some of whom have broken with party leaders in the Trump era.
“We can win when we’re unified,” Schimming said. “We can win when we’re focused and focused on the grassroots.”
Wisconsin Republicans are divided between a group that's “hacked off” and “all-in on Trump” and a growing segment that wants to move on, said Rohn Bishop, the Republican mayor of Waupun and former Fond du Lac County GOP chair.
“If we go the Trump revenue tour route, we're doomed to defeat,” said Bishop, one of the most vocal Republicans against Trump's lies that the 2020 election was stolen.
“If Republicans get their act together, Wisconsin can be very close,” Bishop said.
Longtime western Wisconsin GOP activist Brian Westrate said Republicans are frustrated, but also optimistic about their chances in 2024.
He compares the position Republicans are in now to 2009, when Democrats had majority control of the Legislature, the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of House seats. In 2010, that flipped with Republicans winning the governor’s office, a Senate seat and majority control of the Legislature.
Schimming puts it bluntly: “The only thing that focuses people more than winning is losing."
Republicans say recent high-profile losses, including Trump’s defeat in 2022, overshadow other gains they’ve made. Those include reelecting U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson last year, picking up a congressional seat and increasing majorities in the state Senate and Assembly just shy of a veto-proof supermajority under maps they drew in 2010 and 2020 that are recognized as among the most gerrymandered in the country. Republicans also now hold six of the state’s eight congressional seats.
Schimming said he tries to remind the party faithful with another high stakes presidential election looming that “things change fast.”
“People are more unified than maybe a lot of people would expect after the Supreme Court thing," Schimming said. "The excitement level’s pretty high for our folks.”
Still, Republicans have struggled with how to handle abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v. Wade. That resulted in an 1849 state abortion ban, enacted before women had the right to vote, going back into effect in Wisconsin. A lawsuit seeking to undo the law could be decided by the new liberal-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court before the 2024 election.
Christy Welch is one of many Democrats in Wisconsin who decided to get more involved in politics after Roe was overturned. She quit her job last year “to try to influence what’s happening with politics” and now chairs the Brown County Democratic Party, which will play host to the state convention.
In addition to abortion, Democrats also hope the Wisconsin Supreme Court will redraw the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, another issue that played large in Protasiewicz's win.
“Obviously folks were very excited and it feels really good to be able to build off of momentum and wins,” Welch said.