A Wisconsin Question: Which Flavor of Trump?

A Wisconsin special election gives a hint of whether the state has soured on the Scott Walker agenda.

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.   

“There’s a lot of people up there that have been hit hard in the last couple of recessions. … They’ve now embraced the Trump agenda out there,” James Wigderson, who runs the conservative blog RightWisconsin, told The Dispatch. “It is very blue collar up there, and they moved from Obama to Trump rather easily, just because of the nature of the people that are up there—it’s not dominated by universities. It’s not dominated by big cities.”   

Vying for the district’s Republican affections this year are state senator Tom Tiffany and decorated army vet Jason Church. The two candidates are nothing alike, but both are formidable.

Tom Tiffany comes into the race with an impeccable citizen-legislator’s résumé. A native of western Wisconsin, Tiffany grew up on a dairy farm, got an ag degree from the nearby University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and eventually ended up in the small resort town of Minocqua, where he and his wife ran a tourist boat company for more than 20 years. In 2010, he decided to get into politics out of a classic sense of tea-party frustration: the state economy was in the toilet, and he wanted to help fish it out.

“Wisconsin was in bad shape,” Tiffany told me. “The state had a $3.6 billion deficit. Almost double-digit unemployment. Jobs were fleeing the state. Job creators were really not interested in being in Wisconsin because of our tax and regulatory climate. And I really knew that up close and personal, because of owning my business. I saw the regulations, paid the taxes, and it was really a burden.”

In the legislature, Tiffany was an enthusiastic ally of the Walker agenda, which he credits for helping to turn the state’s economy around. It’s the backbone of his pitch to voters: You could trust me to push hard for a conservative agenda in Madison, so you can trust me to push hard for a conservative agenda in Washington. Tiffany is endorsed by a number of prominent state Republicans, including both Walker and Duffy.

And then there’s Church. A son of an Army family, Church never intended to go into politics: “I wanted to give back to our country in uniform,” he told me. “It’s given us so much, given me so much, my family so much. And that’s how I wanted to really make my career, was being an army officer. So I went and did all my training for that, went to Afghanistan, was a platoon leader there. Unfortunately, all the things I had planned on doing for most of my life changed in an instant.”

Just three months into his 2012 deployment, Church was nearly killed by an IED blast. Both of his legs had to be amputated below the knees. Recovering from his crippling injuries back stateside, Church met Sen. Ron Johnson, and before long began working in Johnson’s office. “I recognized right away that this was an extraordinary young man,” Johnson told the Washington Free Beacon.

After officially retiring from the army, Church moved back to Wisconsin and got his law degree before getting into the race this cycle. He’s been endorsed by a number of GOP veterans nationally, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Sen. Tom Cotton.

“I want to serve again,” he said. “The Taliban took my legs, but they didn’t extinguish my desire to serve. It’s still there; it still burns in me.”

As a political neophyte, Church lacks Tiffany’s solid legislative CV. But in his messaging, he’s leaned into the contrast: waving off Tiffany’s decade of work in the state legislature as “being a machine politician.” In his telling, what the district needs isn’t just someone who will go to Congress and vote for conservative policies. It’s someone who is ready to go and wage war for the soul of America against the likes of young progressive lawmakers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. It’s someone, as Church repeatedly said to me, who’s willing to be a little “boisterous.”

“There’s an issue in Washington, and in fact in Madison in general too,” Church said, “that if we just continue to try and elect people who move up the ladder, if what we’re trying to do is just work within a party system of self-promotion, we’re not going to bring the new energy and vibrance needed into Washington.”

When it comes to their policy agendas, Church and Tiffany have few disagreements. The most prominent has been the degree to which Church has been willing to court his district’s unions—a move that, during the Walker era, would have been anathema to a Wisconsin Republican. Unlike Tiffany, Church favors keeping prevailing wage laws, which compel the government to pay higher wages for construction work, on the books, and he has held fundraisers with union lobbyist and former State Assembly Speaker John Gard.

More striking has been the campaigns’ difference in tone. Unsurprisingly, given the makeup of their district, both Church and Tiffany have taken every opportunity to declare their unwavering allegiance to Donald Trump. In his ads, Tiffany touts his “experience draining the swamp” in Madison and pledges to “help President Trump clean out the three-ring circus in Washington.” Church does the same: “President Trump is making tough decisions. He’s trying to secure out border. He’s trying to create jobs. But he needs help. He needs people who come from outside politics, people who don’t owe anything to anyone. People who just want to do what’s right.”

But if you’d never heard of the man before talking to Tiffany and Church, you might walk away from the conversation thinking they must have been describing two different presidents.

In Tiffany’s telling, Donald Trump is a model free-market, small-government, pro-business conservative: “I just look at the actions of the president, the tax cuts. I’ve seen how it’s turbo-charged the economy. I see it right here in Wisconsin, the regulatory reform that is near and dear to my heart, because I’ve worked on those issues. When I hear ‘drain the swamp,’ I think about the regulatory stuff, with all those alphabet agencies that you have out in Washington, D.C., that put so much red tape that strangles businesses large and small, that puts great restrictions on our economy.”

It’s not surprising that Tiffany plays up those elements of the Trump agenda. “In the case of Tiffany, it’s playing to his strengths because that’s the type of thing that he does in the state legislature,” said Wigderson, who has endorsed Tiffany in the race. “Tom Tiffany is definitely a small-government conservative; he’d have been very comfortable as a conservative under Ronald Reagan.”  

But it’s also hard to argue that Church isn’t the candidate who’s more directly channeling the parts of Donald Trump that made him appealing to so many white working-class voters in the first place.

“I’ll tell you why I’ve supported him from day one,” Church said. “And that’s because President Trump identified something that we all here in northern Wisconsin have felt for a long time. And that is that our culture was under attack. I mean, people like Omar and AOC, when they start pushing things like multiculturalism and intersectionality, what they’re really doing is they’re pointing a finger at someone here in Tomahawk, someone here in Bloomer, in Hudson, in Wausau. And they’re saying, ‘You’re what’s wrong with America.’”

In one sense, next Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin’s 7th District is boilerplate: two strong GOP candidates in a race dominated more by personality than policy.

But it’s also fair to see the contest as a fight over the legacy of the Walker-era GOP in Wisconsin. Tom Tiffany helped create and pass an aggressive fiscal-conservative agenda that turned Scott Walker into a national conservative hero. It’ll be up to the district’s voters to determine whether that’s a pro or a con.  

Photograph of a dairy barn in northern Wisconsin by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images.