Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Wisconsin’s Republican Kingmakers

They are playing key roles in nominating process, and are out to avoid mistakes of 2012 -- and help Walker.

By - May 26th, 2015 10:29 am
Jim Sensenbrenner

Jim Sensenbrenner

Former FBI agent Steve King, of Milton, has been a member of the Republican National Committee since 2007. In his speech to the state Republican Party convention, the no-nonsense King bluntly laid out what went wrong in 2012. Then, GOP presidential hopefuls ran a gauntlet of more than 20 debates, and state-by-state primaries, that led to the nomination of presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“Wrong venues,” King fumed. “Wrong hosts. Wrong moderators.”

There will be no repeat next year of what amounted to a televised water boarding of presidential candidates, King complained.“We are taking back control of our primary process.”

As a member of the RNC’s convention committee, King is one of a number of powerful Wisconsin Republicans who can try to make sure that this happens. They can also tweak the process to help Gov. Scott Walker, who will be Wisconsin’s first GOP candidate for president in eight years.

Besides King and Walker, the other members of the Club of VIWRs (Very Important Wisconsin Republicans) are: Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, of Kenosha; RNC Committeewoman Mary Buestrin, co-chair of the 2012 convention and an RNC member since 1992; State GOP Chairman Brad Courtney, seventh in seniority among state party chairs; U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Congressman Paul Ryan; and the dean of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation, 19-term Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr.

Here’s how the 2016 cycle will be different, King promised GOP convention delegates:

*No circular firing squads, in which the 15 or so GOP presidential candidates criticize each other and their records, giving Democrats sound bites and research opposition to use against whoever is the presidential nominee. Next year, one candidate “can’t be responsible for fatally wounding another candidate,” King said.

*There will be no fewer than nine and no more than 12 debates. And the RNC must approve hosts, media participants and moderators for each debate, King added. King’s comment came days after ABC network anchor George Stephanopoulos, a top adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, apologized for giving $75,000 to the non-profit foundation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for President. Stephanopoulos won’t be moderating any debates this cycle.

*The window for debates will be shorter, beginning Aug. 6 in Cleveland and ending in “late spring,” King said. The national nominating convention convenes in Cleveland on July 18, 2016. The fourth debate, sponsored by Fox Business Network in November, will be in Wisconsin, King said. Referring to Walker, King added, “Did I hear ‘home-field advantage’ for somebody?”

*Unlike 2012, when Romney’s campaign left the nominating convention almost broke, Ryan is running the Presidential Trust fund-raising push to make sure the nominee starts the general-election campaign with more than $20 million, King said.

*RNC officials know that Walker and the other Republican presidential candidates will spend the next 10 months in an intramural scrum trying to win the nomination. “So why don’t we – the RNC – take on Hillary Clinton,” King suggested.

*The RNC is doubling its technology budget because, King said, ”Data is the future of campaigns.”

UW – Madison Political Science Professor Barry Burden thinks these changes will help “top-tier candidates such as Walker.” As he explains:

“Compared to Romney, Walker will not need to spend as much time debating fringe candidates at various sites around the country. He will also have the backing of a party geared toward winning the general election after two losses.”

“The other thing helping Walker, Burden adds, “is the new campaign finance environment. Top-tier candidates such as Walker and Jeb Bush have yet to officially declare their candidacies so that they can raise money without any real limits for a longer time frame. They and their allies … will help them speed past the second-tier candidates who are must rely on traditional ‘hard money’ contributions.”

Why is the RNC so obsessed with candidates’ debates? “The party would like to avoid giving fringe candidates an extended platform as it did four years ago. Candidates such as Herman Cain and Ron Paul got a lot of mileage out of the debates,” Burden added. “With even more candidates running this time around, there is potential for someone like Ted Cruz or Ben Carson to steal the show and distract the party from its goal of winning the White House.”

But not if Wisconsin’s Very Important Republicans can help it.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him a

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