Donald Trump is about to find out that Wisconsin is different. And one of the reasons is conservative talk radio.
In recent years, Wisconsin has repeatedly found itself at the epicenter of political upheavals (Scott Walker, Act 10, recall elections, Paul Ryan). In 2010, no state switched more decisively from blue to red and in this traditionally progressive state the GOP still controls the governorship, both houses of the legislature, a majority of the congressional delegation and (at least for now) a U.S. Senate seat. The heart of the conservative resurgence here is southeastern Wisconsin – which is turning out to be very unfriendly territory for the GOP front-runner.
Last week, we called on Wisconsin’s conservatives to be “a firewall of rationality in the madness that is the current GOP campaign.” Voters here are well positioned to do exactly that. They are savvy, well-informed, and deeply engaged. And they are not buying the vulgar buffoonery that Trump is selling. In the critical WOW counties around Milwaukee – Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington – Trump is viewed positively by just 25% and negatively by 64% of GOP voters.
As The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel noted last week it was not a coincidence that Ted Cruz kicked off his campaign on talk radio in vote-rich Waukesha County:
There’s a reason for that. In a typical day here, in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Republicans can spin their radio dials and have their pick of anti-Donald Trump commentary.
I confess that I am one of them (and have the scars to show for it.) But I am only one of the hosts here who has broken with the national talkers who drank deep from the toxic cup of Trumpism. Wisconsin boasts an unusually robust talk radio infrastructure – one that includes my colleague on WTMJ, Jeff Wagner, WISN’s Mark Belling, Jay Weber, and Dan O’Donnell, as well as Green Bay’s Jerry Bader. There are no Hannity-like Trump fan boys here. Weigel quotes me accurately:
“There’s kind of a fundamental decency about Wisconsinites that you can’t downplay,” Sykes said Tuesday night, poking at a salad at an Ozaukee County supper club. “We’ve never had a huge division between the tea party and the establishment. We’ve got think tanks and radio talk shows that have been through the fire and are really intellectually driven. And you don’t get that elsewhere. I was driving here listening to Sean Hannity, and after 15 seconds, I could feel myself getting dumber.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Reid Epstein also noticed the dynamic here:
For Mr. Trump, Wisconsin’s population distribution poses a particular disadvantage. He is highly unpopular in the Milwaukee area, where local conservative talk-radio hosts have been lamenting his rise for months….In southeast Wisconsin, the local conservative talk-radio hosts have not followed the lead of the national guys,” said Charlie Sykes, who regularly criticizes Mr. Trump on his morning radio show in Milwaukee and is hosting Mr. Cruz at the Wednesday forum in Waukesha. “Trump has not had the talk-radio air cover here that he’s had elsewhere.
But Trump’s unpopularity here is not simply a result of what we have said about him on the air. There is also a very different political culture here. Dan Balz notes that Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan represents “something far different” than Trumpism, a “politics grounded in ideas and policies and an attitude of goodwill.”
So it’s worth noting that Wisconsin GOP voters are Paul Ryan’s – and Scott Walker’s -- voters. Not Trump’s.
Ryan’s approach reflects the distinctive sort of conservatism that has flourished here: principled, pragmatic, substantive, reformist, but not afraid of taking on tough, controversial issues. While the GOP in Washington D.C. has been frustrated and blocked, the record here in Wisconsin has been dramatically different. Not only do conservative now dominant all three branches of government here – they have used that dominance to enact an impressive array of reforms and initiatives from Act 10, Right to Work, and prevailing wage reform, to tax cuts, tort reform, and the expansion of school choice. (Voters will also remember how Trump lied about the success of the conservative reforms here.)
In other words, conservatives in Wisconsin take ideas seriously, which may explain the relatively wide embrace of #Nevertrump here. All of this helps Cruz in a state that few saw as being particularly hospitable to the Texas senator. Politico’s Katie Glueck wrote:
Cruz’s strongest asset, however, may be the strong “Never Trump” movement that began earlier and more aggressively in Wisconsin than did the national efforts to halt the GOP frontrunner's march to the nomination. It is led by prominent local conservative radio hosts like Charlie Sykes, and also embraced by Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, both of whom are now backing Cruz.
The battle for Wisconsin’s GOP delegates may be decided in the Green Bay media market, but there’s no question where voters in the southeast are trending.
“The heart of the Republican vote in Wisconsin is in suburban Milwaukee, and that area in particular has been hostile to Trump,” said Mark Graul, a longtime Wisconsin-based GOP strategist unaligned this cycle.“A leading factor is that conservative media, particularly talk radio, has been very anti-Trump from the start, and that those voices have gone from being anti-Trump to being pro-Cruz, as the election now comes to Wisconsin, that will be very beneficial to Sen. Cruz in areas where probably 40 percent of the Republican vote comes from in two weeks,” a reference to suburban counties around Milwaukee.
If the Trump Train derails, it may start right here.