A Triumph for Wisconsin

Wisconsin was the biggest winner Tuesday night.

Scott Walker’s big against-the-odds victory and Republican wins around the country with Reince Priebus at the RNC helm only boost Wisconsin’s unlikely role as a role model for Republican politics nationwide.

With a 6-point win behind him, Walker is now being talked about more often than ever as a potential 2016 frontrunner for the GOP nomination. That win didn’t just happen, though. Walker and his team put together a formula for getting through a conservative agenda of reform in a typically Democratic state, one that is being replicated nationally to drive Republican turnout.

The model implemented in Wisconsin successfully countered an influx of out-of-state money and an army of Democratic operatives from around the country that was tens of thousands strong. The money and the boots on the ground were mostly attributable to the national unions with an interest in Walker’s reforms to public sector unionization, from AFSCME to the NEA. Their efforts failed, and Walker’s succeeded. Why?

Wisconsin Republicans’ strategy was a combined effort of the Walker re-election campaign and the Republican Party of Wisconsin; their efforts were intertwined to the point of effectively being one and the same. They opened field offices before the 2012 recall and collected voter data nonstop ever since. More offices were opened and staffed around the state last summer; data collection intensified. Even more offices were opened a year or so prior to the 2014 election.

The data collection machine was truly nonstop, and the approach was one that centered around the community in which the offices were situated. The focus of voter outreach long ago was placed on knocking on doors and having one-on-one interactions. In the run-up to the election the voter turnout operation was relentless – I’ve talked with people who said they got three calls per day.

In contrast to reports of “blue shirts and iPads” and circus-style tents on college campuses – Democratic operatives working the turnout circuit – the GOP’s turnout operation was apparently more subtle. But it clearly worked, notably in places like Maryland and Illinois. In Wisconsin the Republicans turned out enough votes to swamp Walker’s opponent in almost any Democratic turnout scenario; even if the Dems achieved their goal of presidential-level turnout in the bluest counties, Dane and Milwaukee, Walker still would’ve won.

Essentially the focus in Wisconsin for the past two-plus years was on keeping a nonstop presence in as many communities as possible and on relentless-to-the-point-of-obnoxious data collection, an approach that worked like clockwork despite a well-funded and formidable Democratic turnout machine in a blue state. Walker himself maintained a drill sergeant’s discipline on the stump and in the press, pounding the same populist, reformist message that appeals to middle class aspirations for lower taxes and better jobs.

Wisconsin exported its Walker-era approach nationally when RPW chairman Reince Priebus became RNC chair. Nationally, the GOP made huge strides increasing turnout among its base by investing tremendous resources into data collection and voter outreach. While the cross-section of the GOP electorate was the same old demographic – the Republicans didn’t make much progress earning minority votes this time – it did an excellent job keeping pace with a Democratic turnout machine nationally that has a decade head start. The LA Times has more to say on this.

Grafting the Wisconsin model onto the nation isn’t an easy feat. But perhaps in the next year Republican governors will see that they can adopt Walker-esque reforms that rein in government unions and, like Walker, survive the onslaught. Should these efforts come about, those cases will be further catalysts for replicating the Walker re-election model in other states and continuing to build a national infrastructure for GOP victory, thus exporting not only the winning strategy of Wisconsin’s best but also the reform agenda.

The GOP does need to work on one thing, despite what the Rush Limbaughs and Mark Levins say – and that’s broadening its appeal among minorities. But it doesn’t need to do it by pandering and succumbing to the clientelism of the Democrats’ approach. It does need to send its messengers into areas that are predominantly populated by minorities and talk about equal opportunity and economic pluralism in order to have national appeal long-term.

Someone like Julian Bradley – a rising Black Republican with charisma and a lot of experience with shattering stereotypes in where else but Wisconsin, who just narrowly lost his bid for Wisconsin secretary of state – would fit that role nicely.

In the end, all the technology and data gathering wouldn’t be able to overcome the insurmountable challenge of running a terrible candidate. Now as ever, candidates must be inspiring, they must have broad appeal that captures more than just core conservatives, and – as I mentioned about Walker – they must be disciplined. Winning Republican candidates had all these qualities.

Discipline: that’s the final piece of the Wisconsin model.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.