Wisconsin’s Tea Party melds with GOP

In several states, candidates hoisted by members of the Tea Party beat candidates supported by the Republican Party establishment in the 2010 primary election, forcing a civil war of sorts among conservative factions of the electorate.

That dichotomy did not take place this year in Wisconsin, where the Tea Party movement has blended into the GOP establishment rather seamlessly.

Activists at the Republican Party State Convention gave early endorsements to Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s campaign to be Wisconsin’s next governor and Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

By all accounts, the Tea Party factions in Wisconsin were perfectly comfortable with those selections, because they did not challenge either of them.

Contrast that civility with what happened in several other states:

  • In Delaware, Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell upset incumbent GOP politician Mike Castle for the Republican nomination for Senate.
  • In Nevada, Tea Party darling Sharron Angle beat the GOP establishment choices of Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian.
  • In Alaska, previously unknown Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller upset Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski , who is now running as a write-in independent candidate.
  • In Kentucky, Tea Partier Rand Paul defeated Trey Grayson, who had been endorsed by Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

There was only token evidence of any rift between the Tea Party and the Wisconsin GOP establishment. Franklin resident William “Larry” Gamble, a self-proclaimed Tea Partier, mounted a token and futile primary challenge to State Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale).

 

Dick Leinenkugel, a moderate, had thrown his hat into the ring early as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, but his campaign was quickly extinguished at the state GOP convention.

Johnson, in particular, rose up from the Tea Party. His campaign took shape after he gave a fiery speech at a Tea Party rally in Madison in April on Tax Day, when he proclaimed, "America needs to be pulled back from the brink of socialism and state control.”

Insiders took note when Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal came to Wisconsin to rally support for Walker last week. Notice, Johnson was nowhere in those photo opps.

That was not an oversight. Johnson’s brand is that of a political outsider, someone who’s trying to defeat a candidate (Democrat Russ Feingold) whom he is painting as an insider. Having his photo taken with Romney, who approved Obamacare-like health care reforms in Massachusetts, and Jindal, who presented Obama stimulus checks in photo opps in Louisiana, would not have supported Johnson’s political brand as an independent.

Walker seems to be wearing both hats, speaking at Tea Party rallies on one day and running around town with the likes of Romney and Jindal on the next.

Meanwhile, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Rebecca Kleefisch is straight out of Tea Party central casting, a full-fledged, gun-toting “Mama Grizzly,” whom many in the GOP establishment liken to Sarah Palin.

That’s all just fine with Nancy Milholland, co-organizer of the Racine Tea Party.

“I know for a fact Scott Walker and Ron Johnson, they are running on the same issues we care about. Ron Johnson is a newcomer to politics, and Ron Johnson greatly supports the Tea Party. I guess we just align so well with Ron Johnson. It feels like he’s one of us,” Milholland said. “Scott Walker, the same thing. Scott Walker is a true fiscal conservative. I guess because we’re one and the same in Wisconsin. They are Tea Party Republicans.”

– Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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