Battlegrounds

Donald Trump Heads Into the Heart of the Republican Establishment

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, and Governor Scott Walker all hail from Wisconsin, the state that the billionaire front-runner is now targeting for a win.

Badger State Battle: Previewing Wisconsin’s Primary

Donald Trump hasn't just vanquished most competitors in his march toward the Republican presidential nomination, he's embarrassed a lengthy list of opponents, including former governors and senators, in their home states. This week, he takes aim at the heart of the party establishment in its own backyard.

But Trump may find a different dynamic when he lands in Wisconsin. The Midwestern state is the next battleground in the Republican race, and home to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, and Governor Scott Walker, who a year ago was considered a favorite for the nomination.

While a deep partisan divide exists in the state—look no further than three gubernatorial elections here in a recent four-year stretch—the Wisconsin Republican Party remains largely unscathed by the type of internal upheaval that has nearly divorced the national party's activist base from its pro-business establishment. That warring has helped elevate Trump, who delights in disparaging the nation's political leaders as losers who are too stupid to win at almost anything.

“Up to this point, we've had a fractured voting bloc,” Jake Curtis, a Wisconsin Republican strategist helping Ted Cruz's campaign, said about the national race. “But Wisconsin is unique in that there hasn’t been a significant divide between the establishment and Tea Party. Obviously there have been disagreements, but we've generally found a way to get along and advance a conservative agenda in the state.”

Touching Down

Trump started his week on Monday in a combative interview with an influential Wisconsin radio show host. Charlie Sykes, the host of a morning show on Milwaukee-based WTMJ, welcomed Trump by telling him the state values "civility, decency, and actual conservative principles."

Sykes, who's backing Cruz, asked Trump to agree that wives should off limits in the campaign. When Trump declined, the radio host shot back: "I expect that from a 12-year-old bully on the playground, not somebody who wants the office held by Abraham Lincoln.”

Trump said he was "fine" with not talking about wives, and put the blame on Cruz.

"He started it," Trump said.

Trump will test Wisconsin's Republican unity when he lands Tuesday for his first stop in the state—notably, in Ryan's home town of Janesville. 

Ryan's district in southern Wisconsin is a compelling one for Trump. It's not quite as conservative as the state's four other Republican-held congressional districts, and it voted for Barack Obama in 2008. There is plenty of anger, too. The area lost about 750 jobs when General Motors shuttered the 90-year-old Janesville Assembly Plant in 2009. A sale of the property has been complicated by the city's disclosure of water and ground contamination around the property.

But Ryan is held up as the archetypal Wisconsin Republican, who, several conservative activists said, has shown an ability to keep his fingers on the pulse of his local base while handling the national spotlight. Ryan was Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012 and now, as speaker, is shepherd of the unruly Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“Everybody loves him,” said Carol Brunner, a past president of the Wisconsin Federation of Republican Women, who lives in Ryan's district. “Even though he's speaker, he gets back here for local events. He does town halls and phone conferences. We don’t feel disconnected from him at all.”

Ryan, who skipped a Cruz campaign event in his hometown on March 23, won't attend Trump's rally, either. He's tried to remain neutral in the race, but has taken public exception to Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and the billionaire's initial failure in a television interview to denounce the Ku Klux Klan.

Last week, during a speech on the state of American politics, Ryan called for elevating the political debate. While he didn't mention Trump by name, it was viewed as a clear rebuke to the former reality TV star's brand of politics.

And Ryan, who will be chairman of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, has talked about it being “more likely” now that the nomination will not be settled before the convention. Trump has said that he should be the nominee if he has the most delegates but is still short of the 1,237 needed to clinch the nomination. 

“Rules are rules,” Ryan told reporters this month about his role in the convention. “We're going to stick with the rules.”

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Even before Trump's controversial remarks about Muslims, the two men didn't exactly see eye to eye. 

“I'm a little concerned about Paul,” Trump told Fox News' Sean Hannity in October, terming Ryan “very weak” on illegal immigration. “We have to have a border, we have to have a wall, we have to have people come in but they have to come in legally. He's very, very weak on that issue and that bothers me.” 

Priebus, meanwhile, has welcomed Trump's candidacy while warning that the eventual nominee will have to get the required number of delegates. Priebus was elected the party's chairman in 2011 after seven rounds of voting. “You have to have a majority of delegates,” Priebus said in a March 21 interview on Fox News.

Badger State Brawl

To this point in the Republican primary, Trump has had little trouble casting aside local favorites.

He easily won South Carolina, the home state of Senator Lindsey Graham, who dropped out after failing to find any traction. In Florida, Trump beat Senator Marco Rubio by almost 20 percentage points. The New York businessman has collected wins in Arkansas (Mike Huckabee), Kentucky (Rand Paul), Louisiana (Bobby Jindal), and Virginia (Jim Gilmore), all homes to current or former statewide officials who had failed to slow Trump's presidential bid before ending their campaigns.

Not coincidentally, Trump's two remaining rivals—Ohio Governor John Kasich and Cruz, a Texas senator—both beat Trump in their home states. A poll last week from Emerson College showed Cruz with 36 percent support of likely Wisconsin primary voters, Trump at 35 percent, and Kasich with 19 percent. Cruz was 4.8 percentage points ahead of Trump in a survey by the Washington Free Beacon released on March 25.

Still, the battle for Wisconsin, which holds it primary on April 5, is just getting started. Kasich and Cruz held their first events in the state last week, and are only now beginning to organize. Their campaigns and affiliated super-PACs bought about $1.6 million in TV ads last week and this week, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad buys.

With little room for error, the only hope either Cruz or Kasich has is to keep Trump from accumulating the 1,237 delegates, and by doing so create the party's first contested convention since 1976. Trump's rate of collecting delegates has slowed slightly, but he remains at 96 percent of his target pace, according to a calculation by FiveThirtyEight. That compares to Cruz, who is at 54 percent of his target. There are not enough delegates remaining in the race for Kasich to secure the nomination.

Stop-Trump Surrogates

In Wisconsin, the Republican establishment hasn't completely coalesced around either of Trump's main rivals. Walker, who quit the race in September, hasn't endorsed. And Senator Ron Johnson, who opinion polls show trailing in his re-election bid against Democrat Russ Feingold, is appealing to a higher power.

“I pray every night that whoever our nominee is, who our president is, be a person of intelligence, integrity, ideas and courage,” Johnson said during a campaign stop last week in suburban Milwaukee. He said he won't endorse.

The first choice of many Wisconsin Republicans was Walker, and there was a rush to Rubio after the governor quit. Now that Rubio's out, Cruz has collected a number of endorsements. Club for Growth, which has focused solely on attacking Trump, announced a $1 million ad buy in Wisconsin that will support Cruz.

But Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin's longest-serving governor, is now backing Kasich.  The former Health and Human Services secretary is on his third endorsement, after lining up behind Walker and then former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Thompson's desperation was palpable as he almost roared at a Kasich campaign stop on Wednesday in suburban Milwaukee, much like a football coach revving up his team during a pre-game pep talk.

“We are Republicans,” the 74-year-old Thompson bellowed to a crowd of about 300 people. “And we've got to select somebody that can defeat Hillary Clinton!”

That's been the disconnect for many Republicans. In a Bloomberg Politics national poll published last week, 66 percent of Republicans said Trump had the best chance of beating Clinton, front-runner for the Democratic nomination. But when the hypothetical matchup up was put to all adults, Trump trailed her by 18 points. Cruz trailed Clinton by 9 points, and Kasich held a 4-point lead.

Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll, questions the influence that endorsements have in the current climate. He said the political establishment, including conservative talk radio, is unified against Trump but is divided between Cruz and Kasich.

“It's a life of desperate measures here for the GOP,” Franklin said in an interview. “Lindsey Graham's choice of poisoning or being shot has come true here.”

That may be changing. 

Wisconsin talk radio is a powerful megaphone, and, unlike many nationally syndicated conservative radio hosts, they've been criticizing Trump for months.

The handful of radio hosts around the state are led by Sykes, who has had little reservation about showing his disdain for the gentle handling of Trump by many conservative pundits.

Sykes hosted a panel for a three-hour long radio show on March 23, part of which was devoted to Trump's leading the Republican field.

“The party was founded in this state,” said panelist Brian Fraley, owner and president of Edge Messaging LLC, a Brookfield, Wisconsin, communications firm. “This state can stop Donald Trump.”

With assistance from Ben Brody and Billy House in Washington. 

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