For Wisconsin Republicans, the 2010s were a decade of contrasts. During the Obama years, the state produced a bumper crop of young conservative heroes: Gov. Scott Walker, who went to war with the state’s powerful government unions and triumphed, and budget hawk Rep. Paul Ryan, who set the tone for a hard-charging Republican party that was serious about shrinking the government, serious about reining in federal deficits, serious about restoring the balance of powers to the states.
And then came the repudiation of 2016, delivered in the form of one Donald Trump. In the GOP primary that year, Trump fell like an avenging angel on Wisconsin-style Republicanism: pledging not to cut federal entitlement programs, railing against international trade deals, and openly lusting after the heady prerogatives of executive power. Walker he chewed up and spit out instantly; Ryan would last only two more fitful years. Wisconsin’s voters didn’t seem to mind. Although they ultimately opted for Cruz in the primary, in November Trump became the first Republican candidate to carry the state since Ronald Reagan, thanks largely to conversions of white working-class voters who had historically voted Democrat.
Where does that leave the Wisconsin GOP, in this the age of Trump? We’ll get a hint of the answer to that in Wisconsin’s 7th District next week, where two very different Republican candidates are squaring off in a special election primary in the race to replace retired Rep. Sean Duffy.
In Wisconsin, the 7th District is as close to pure Trump country as it gets. By far the largest congressional district in the state geographically, it sweeps across the towns, croplands, lakeside resorts and dairy farms that make up the sparsely populated northern half of the state. In 2008, the district voted for Barack Obama; it had been represented in Congress by a Democrat, David Obey, for nearly 40 years. But the winds were changing: In 2010, the district elected Duffy, a Republican, and broke for Mitt Romney two years later. And in 2016, the district made its peace with Trump early: although Cruz won the state handily, Trump easily carried the 7th.