House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is leaving. Former state chairman Reince Priebus is gone. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), the big cheese, stands alone — and may face an expiration date in November.
Ryan’s sudden retirement announcement removes the second of Wisconsin’s hulking conservative figures of the last decade from the political battlefield in a period of months after Priebus’ ignominious ouster from the White House. That, coupled with signs of a building Democratic wave in Wisconsin and nationally, has some in the state party worried they’re seeing the end of a period of conservative dominance in the swing state that covered the Obama era.
“It definitely feels like this era is coming to an end,” one Wisconsin Republican strategist told TPM. “Losing Paul Ryan knocks out one of the legs of the tripod that’s held Wisconsin Republicans up for so long, after the loss of Priebus knocked out another. … There’s probably going to be a blue wave.”
The developments have long-demoralized Democrats feeling chipper for the first time in years.
“Going, going, gone! Reince is gone, Ryan’s going and Mr. Walker knows he’s in for a dogfight,” Joe Zepecki, a top Democratic strategist in the state, giddily told TPM on Wednesday.
Ryan was a key player in the conservative revolution in Wisconsin, turning a swing state with a powerful union presence and long history of populist politicians from both parties into a right-wing policy bastion over the last eight years. He did so alongside then-state Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus – and Scott Walker, who rose from Milwaukee County executive to become one of the nation’s most polarizing and well-known governors of the last decade.
Walker captured the governorship in a close 2010 race, and with unified control of the state legislature proceeded to gut public unions in the state, a deeply polarizing act that led to a failed attempt to recall him from office. Demoralized Democrats failed to defeat him again in 2014, and saw their power fade across the state, with President Obama’s 2o12 win in the state the sole bright spot in a decade of misery. Last election cycle was the roughest blow to date, as President Trump became the first GOP nominee to carry the state in 32 years after Hillary Clinton failed to campaign in the state, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pulled off a surprising reelection victory after being left for dead by his own party earlier in the year.
Priebus moved on to an impressive reign heading the Republican National Committee, became President Trump’s first chief of staff – and was unceremoniously pushed aside last year. Now Ryan has decided to follow his old ally out of politics.
Walker’s the last man standing – and there are signs that the Democratic resurgence simmering across the country will give him the toughest fight of his career.
Just weeks ago, a liberal candidate won a seat on the state Supreme Court by a double-digit electoral margin, prompting Walker to warn of a “Blue wave” building in the state. The victory was the first time a non-incumbent liberal justice had won a seat in more than two decades in the state.
Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.
— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) April 4, 2018
“The Supreme Court race was the canary in the cave, a signal, and the canary died, so now we have to figure things out,” Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican strategist with ties to Walker and Ryan, told TPM. “That was a big wakeup call.”
And it came on the heels of a big Democratic upset in a northwestern Wisconsin state senate seat that Democrats hadn’t held in 17 years.
Those results rattled Republicans across the state, who worry the tide may be turning on them after an impressive eight-year run.
Republicans admit that with Ryan gone, his GOP-leaning seat could be competitive this fall. They’re even more worried about Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), a polarizing figure in a swing district who has less campaign cash than his Democratic challenger. They say even Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) could be in for a real fight, and are worried about losing the state senate as well, while many aren’t too bullish about defeating Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the state’s lone statewide Democratic office-holder, this fall.
But Walker is the big prize. He saw his standing plummet in the state after his failed presidential run, and while his numbers have bounced back he’s still upside down in most recent polling of the state.
Democrats have a late and crowded primary, the eventual winner will face a major cash deficit heading into the election against Walker, and Republicans at least aren’t too scared of any of the people running to face Walker — “A blue wave doesn’t make a C-level candidate an A-level candidate,” said Scholz. But for the first time in years, Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances to seize back control of the key swing state.
“It is certainly an exciting time to be a Wisconsin Democrat,” said Zepecki.