LA CROSSE, Wis. — Eleven days after a special election turned Wisconsin’s 10th Senate District blue, the mood was scrappy as La Crosse County Republicans — with help from Gov. Scott Walker — opened the state’s ninth GOP field office for the upcoming election cycle.
Saturday morning, county party chair Bill Feehan recalled what got him into GOP politics: “Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States (in 2008), and that’s what it took to shock me into action.”
Feehan became the county party’s vice chair in 2009. He said a Democratic victory Jan. 16 in a Senate district that had elected Republican Sheila Harsdorf for the previous 16 years could be the shock that gets his party rolling this year.
“Our state is the most prosperous it has ever been,” Feehan told a crowd of several dozen people, citing budget surpluses and high employment after seven years under Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican Legislature. “Republican policies have brought success.”
But complacency could put that success in jeopardy, Feehan warned, citing the victory by Democrat Patty Schachtner against state Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, in a special election for Harsdorf’s former seat. The district in northwest Wisconsin voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and for President Donald Trump by a 17-point margin in 2016.
“Republicans didn’t show up, and we lost that seat because of complacency,” Feehan said of the 11-point loss in a low-turnout election after Harsdorf’s appointment as state agriculture secretary.
In an election-night Tweet, Gov. Scott Walker called the 10th District outcome “a wake-up call for Republicans in Wisconsin.”
“The left is angry and motivated,” Walker told his audience in the party’s new space at 3452 Losey Blvd. S., on La Crosse’s far South Side, urging supporters to respond with “optimism and organization.”
Walker expressed optimism that the Legislature will pass his proposed $100 per child tax credit, to be paid in August, and suggested some Democrats would vote for it — foreshadowing Assembly and Senate campaigns in which votes on the tax break could be an issue.
After posing for cellphone photos with supporters, among them GOP 3rd Congressional District challenger Steve Toft of Osseo, Walker defended the tax break targeted at parents — criticized by Democrats as a bribe for votes — as the quickest way to push money from a budget surplus back into the economy.
Before introducing Walker, state GOP party chair Brad Courtney told the crowd that there’s already evidence that complacency won’t be a problem: With nine field offices already open, Wisconsin Republicans are far ahead of their pace of two and four years ago, when there were two offices in 2016 and four in 2014 up and running at the same point in the campaign season.
“We just need to be little ambassadors for Gov. Walker,” Courtney said, urging personal contact with friends and neighbors recounting Republican accomplishments such as tax relief and a state college tuition freeze.
“We’re doing good and important things, but we can’t assume our neighbors know about it,” he said. “The most effective tool is talking to people.”
Walker said the GOP has more than closed the technology gap Democrats enjoyed in 2008, with phone apps that identify residents’ voting patterns and the issues residents care about. But, he said, in trying to move an electorate more and more skeptical of institutions of all kinds, person-to-person campaigning — phone calls and door knocks — are more important than ever.
“The most reliable source is people they trust,” said Walker, urging supporters to personally carry his message of accomplishments and coming welfare and health care reforms to relatives, friends and neighbors.
La Crosse County’s representatives in the state Assembly are both Democrats: Jill Billing represents the reliably Democratic 95th District, and Steve Doyle represents the suburban and rural 94th District. But no Republicans have entered those races so far.
The 32nd District seat held by Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling is not up for election this year.