A year ago, Wisconsin’s political landscape would have been described as a healthy purple, overseen primarily by Democrats who prided themselves on being socially progressive but fiscally conservative. No more.
After the November midterm elections and Friday’s elevation of native son Reince Priebus to chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), Wisconsin is getting a makeover to deep red. Not only does Mr. Priebus, who hails from Kenosha, Wis., and is the former chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, now hold the top slot in the national party apparatus, but the state has turned several other major political seats over to Republicans, some of whom have tea party leanings.
Republican Scott Walker, a former County of Milwaukee executive, defeated Democrat and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the governor's race, replacing retiring Gov. James Doyle (D). In another high-profile Wisconsin election in November, businessman Ron Johnson, a Republican from Oshkosh who associated himself with the tea party during the campaign, defeated longtime US Sen. Russ Feingold (D).
Wisconsin Democrats also lost control of the state Assembly and Senate, yielding control of both houses to Republicans for the first time since 1998.
Priebus, whom members of the RNC elected to succeed chairman Michael Steele, acknowledged after his victory on Friday that recent events have favored his party, saying Wisconsin will be “a targeted state” for Democrats in the next election.
“We're not unused to having lots of press. It seems like President Obama comes in [to Wisconsin] every other month," Priebus said.
Priebus has never held elected office, having lost his only campaign, for state Senate, in 2004. His political clout arises from positions he has held in the state Republican Party, of which he was named chairman in 2007.
In Wisconsin, he is known as a strict conservative who considers the tea party an extension of the state's Republican Party. At a retreat for Republican members of Congress in Baltimore on Saturday, Priebus suggested that the national party should embrace tea party activists.
“I believe what we need at the RNC, in my case, is less of self and more of everybody else,” he said, according to CNN.
Priebus’s tenure in the state party is not without controversy. During the 2008 presidential election, local Democrats cited an e-mail leaked from Priebus’s office that they said came close to advocating voter intimidation in some of Milwaukee’s inner-city, and heavily Democratic, neighborhoods.
In September, a nonpartisan watchdog group called One Wisconsin Now filed complaints with the federal and state attorneys general, charging that state Republicans and tea party organizations had engaged in vote suppression, targeting minorities and college students.
In a statement released Friday, Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, warned against the practice becoming widespread with Priebus’s ascension to the post of RNC chairman.
“Now that Reince Priebus will have the RNC’s treasury at his disposal, those across the country interested in fair and clean elections will be on high alert,” he said.