In May, Republicans from across Wisconsin will travel to Dane County for the GOP’s annual state convention. Hold onto your MAGA hat, can that be right? The same Dane County that’s home to the People’s Republic of Madison and that voted overwhelmingly for Gov. Tony Evers and President Joe Biden? 

You heard right. Dane County will host the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s 2022 state convention at the Marriott hotel in Middleton May 20-22. 

Anna Kelly, spokesperson for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, tells Isthmus that the GOP faithful aren’t “afraid to visit the heart of the beast.”

“As families confront widespread inflation, historic learning loss, and failure by Democrats at all levels, Republicans’ message of freedom and accountability resonates with all Wisconsinites,” writes Kelly in an email. 

If history holds, the annual GOP convention will feature speeches from high-profile politicians like Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who is up for re-election this year. Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, businessman Kevin Nicholson, and State Rep. Timothy Ramthun — all candidates vying to challenge Evers — are also likely to give speeches. Kelly did not immediately respond to an email asking what speakers have been confirmed for the convention. 

Kelly says that Dane, the second most populous county in Wisconsin, consistently delivers the third highest number of Republican votes in the state (behind Milwaukee and Waukesha). That’s true. In the last gubernatorial race, former Gov. Scott Walker received more total votes in Dane County than he did in the smallest 20 counties in Wisconsin combined. That, however, is more a reflection of the county’s population than its politics. 

In every statewide election since 2002, Democratic candidates have won Dane County by more than 30 percentage points. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson was the last GOP candidate for governor to receive a majority in the county and that was 28 years ago. The last Republican presidential candidate to win Dane was Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Scott Grabins, chair of the Republican Party of Dane County, says this will not be the first state party annual convention in Dane County. But “it has been awhile, probably decades.” 

“It’s still very important for Republicans to have a presence in Dane County. Certainly over the last several years, we’ve seen statewide [Republican] candidates give it more attention and they have spent more time here,” says Grabins. “We have a lot of challenges in terms of winning local races. But in statewide elections, how a candidate performs in Dane County can make or break the campaign.” 

One could argue that the huge turnout in Dane County in the 2020 presidential election was critical to delivering the state to Biden, who won Wisconsin by a little more than 20,000 votes. When Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, Hillary Clinton received around 218,000 votes in Dane County. Four years later Biden received 260,000. 

In general, Dane County has been trending more blue even in non-presidential election years. Walker received 31 percent of the vote in Dane County in 2010 when he ran against former Milwaukee Tom Barrett and 30 percent in 2012 when he beat back a recall effort. In 2014, when he ran against Democrat Mary Burke, he received 29 percent of the vote; in 2018, when he lost to Evers, he received 24  percent. 

The only Wisconsin county which gives Democrats a higher percentage of the vote is tiny Menominee County. It’s the state’s least populous county and its borders are essentially aligned with the Menominee people’s tribal borders. Seventy-seven percent of Menominee voters cast a ballot for Evers in 2018; 82 percent of the county voted for Biden. However with roughly 1,600 total voters in Menominee County, there are individual wards in Madison that crank out more votes than that. 

Despite the consistent Democratic gains in Dane County, Grabins says Republicans haven’t given up on organizing locally. 

“Our county party is one of the most active in the state. We hold [events] every month that draw 60 to 100 people. There’s a lot of energetic Republicans in Dane County who are focused on the kind of trickle-up elections that make us competitive in statewide races and help with top-of-the-ticket victories,” says Grabins. “It was time for the state party to bring the convention to Dane County. We play an important role in helping elect Republicans all over Wisconsin.”

Devin Remiker, executive director of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, tells Isthmus by email that he doesn’t expect Dane County to roll out the red carpet for the Republicans arriving for the state convention in May.

“The residents of Dane County will be less than thrilled to welcome the Republican Party of Wisconsin, which is still working overtime to try to invalidate their lawfully cast votes in their ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election,” writes Remiker. “As Wisconsin Republicans’ in-fighting continues, it’s clear they have no plan to deliver for Wisconsinites.” 

State Dems have selected La Crosse for their annual convention in late June. Unlike Dane County, western Wisconsin is far less politically lopsided. 

“La Crosse is a thriving city in a critically important part of our state. The 3rd Congressional District voted for both Ron Kind and Donald Trump in 2020 and both Tony Evers and Tammy Baldwin in 2018,” writes Remiker. “We know how important this area is, and we’re excited to gather in this crucial part of the state to show how Democrats are moving Wisconsin forward.” 

Wisconsin’s battleground status in presidential elections could bring both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention to Milwaukee in 2024. Neither party has made a final decision yet. But Milwaukee is a “frontrunner” for the Democrats because the city missed out on truly hosting the convention in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Republicans have named Milwaukee and Nashville as finalists for its 2024 convention.  

Whether it’s the city of Milwaukee or Dane County, Grabins says Wisconsin Republicans are sending a signal that “we’re alive and well even in liberal areas.” 

“We are doing our best to compete here, just like we are anywhere else in the state,” says Grabins. “We’re not afraid to come to Dane County and we have just as much right to campaign here as anyone else.” 


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