02:16 - Source: CNN
Trump's strategy may not work in Wisconsin

Story highlights

Attacks on popular Gov. Scott Walker are hurting Trump with GOP voters

The Wisconsin "establishment" is popular in inside the state

Milwaukee CNN —  

Donald Trump made quick work of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker when the two were Republican presidential primary opponents last year, lumping the popular conservative in with a crowded slate of political insiders. But now that the GOP’s nominating contest has arrived in Walker’s home state, the tables have turned – and the billionaire’s anti-establishment rhetoric appears to be falling flat with the party base.

“Your governor came out, he was expected to win and we sent him packing like a little boy,” Trump said during an interview with radio host Michael Koolidge last Tuesday, on the same morning Walker announced he would back Trump rival Ted Cruz.

Trump’s decision to repeatedly attack Walker has angered large portions of the party base and left many political analysts dumbfounded. Despite his early exit from the national contest, the governor remains an immensely popular figure among Wisconsin Republicans, with eight-in-ten approving of the job he’s done as governor.

“I don’t think Donald Trump respects the voters of Wisconsin,” Brandon Scholz, a long-time Republican strategist and lobbyist in the state, said on Monday. “He’s clueless.”

Where Trump has generally found success blustering into states as varied as Michigan and Arizona, quickly winning over disaffected Republicans with his anti-establishment message and raucous political theater, Wisconsin has proven a tougher nut to crack. Hardened by more than five years of pitched battles over labor rights and a 2011 recall election, Trump’s rhetoric is being met here with more skeptical ears.

And a GOP voter base which, unlike so many others, holds its state leaders – people like Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Wisconsin native RNC chairman Reince Priebus – in high regard.

If taking shots at Walker, as Trump did during an event in Janesville last week, was part of his strategy for the state, Scholz added, then it represents a terrible miscalculation.

“Maybe in his mind and some others this is a political tactic, that they can get people engaged and thinking that there’s a lot of anti-Walker Republicans – which there aren’t, he’s got an 80% approval rating – then maybe (Trump) can, as he does in other places, get his earned media that way,” he said. “But it’s backfired, it’s backfired terribly.”

Scholz, who is unaligned in 2016, also questioned Trump’s decision last week to visit the city, home to popular House Speaker Ryan.

“You don’t poke Ryan in the eye,” he said, noting the speaker’s rare popularity with both very conservative and moderate Republicans. “That’s just stupid.”

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding their strategy.

Revenge of the establishment?

The most recent horse race numbers show Cruz surging, with a 10-point lead in the respected Marquette Law School poll. Trump, meanwhile, is stuck on 30% support among likely GOP voters, the same as in February, when then-fellow candidates Marco Rubio and Ben Carson were still in the race.

Among those backing Cruz is Tim Felski, a 52-year-old bus driver, who concedes that, on paper at least, he fits the bill for what one might expect in a Trump supporter – white, middle-aged, middle-income and a lifelong Republican.

But Trump, he said on Sunday, is “too out there for me. Too fanatical, too loose with the lips, just doesn’t do it for me.”

“I don’t want somebody like that, who I just don’t know what he’s going to do from day-to-day,” said Felski, an active Milwaukee County Republican and friend of Walker’s going back to their undergrad days at Marquette University. “He seems like he’s more into this for egoistical reasons and not because he wants to run the nation in the best way possible.”

Now, Trump’s decision not to play ball with Republican leaders in a state where the party controls all three branches of government is poised to hurt him with the grassroots.

“He has never worked elites in the state,” said Barry Burden, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Elections Research Center. “He has no endorsements, essentially, from any state legislators. He’s tried to talk to conservative talk radio earlier this week, and that was a failure.”

Conservative radio takes on Trump

Wisconsin’s right-wing radio hosts have been among Trump’s most eager and organized opponents. Last week, the real estate mogul walked into a buzzsaw when he went on the air with Charlie Sykes, a host on WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee and vocal member of the “Never Trump” movement.

“Nobody snapped him up and said, ‘Hey, by the way, this guy’s hashtag Never Trump?’” Brandon Scholz asked incredulously, pointing to the incident as still more evidence to underline the campaign’s lack of knowledge about the state.

Jerry Bader, another top talker on Wisconsin’s radio scene, told CNN’s Michael Smerconish this weekend that he viewed Trump’s recent abortion flap – the candidate lurched from talk of punishing women who seek the procedure to a vaguer promise to reverse the current law through judicial appointments – as a strong signal that the leading Republican presidential candidate lacked real conservative credentials.

RELATED: Is Wisconsin Donald Trump’s Waterloo?

“The beef with Donald Trump is he’s not real, he’s not pro-life. He has no idea what the pro-life answer should be,” Bader said. “He is trying to figure out what a conservative should sound like. That’s why he blows in the wind, that’s why there’s no substance there. That’s our beef with him, besides his boorish, childish, playground behavior.”

Wisconsin’s long memory

Questions surrounding Trump’s demeanor and attitude toward GOP leadership – the same that worry the political class nationally – were on display Sunday at Buck Bradley’s Saloon in Milwaukee, where residents of the more conservative suburbs streamed in and out ahead of sporting events at the nearby BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Tending the upstairs bar that afternoon, Juston Edwards, 32, a Janesville native who recently received an MBA in finance, suggested that Wisconsin voters have a longer memory than others – likely to Trump’s detriment.

“People here are engaged, so they get upset, the conservatives do, when you attack the governor,” he said, making reference to Trump’s lukewarm comments about Walker during the 2011 public sector union fight.

“He’s done so much for the tea party movement, he’s done so much for the party, he’s done so much to put conservative values to the test – taxes, cutting the budget, cutting waste – he’s done exactly everything that they wanted him to do,” Edwards said. “So when you have a guy like Trump who criticizes all that, people get upset.”