Republican Party of Wisconsin
The Republican Party of Wisconsin is the Wisconsin affiliate of the United States Republican Party (GOP). The state party chair is Andrew Hitt. The state party is divided into 72 county parties for each of the state’s counties, as well as organizations for the state’s eight congressional districts.
After the introduction in Congress of the Kansas–Nebraska bill in January 1854, many meetings were held in protest across the country. The meeting held in Ripon, Wisconsin on March 20, 1854 is commonly cited as the birth of the Republican Party in the United States due to it being the first publicized anti-slavery meeting to propose a new party with its name being Republican.
Origins of the Republican Party in Wisconsin
Before the meeting in Ripon, an alliance existed between state Whigs, whose national party had weakened, and members of the Free Soil Party, with whom they formed a “people’s ticket” as early as 1842. The coalition succeeded in electing the chief justice of the state supreme court, a Milwaukee mayor and aldermen. Many Wisconsin Democrats were also opposed to the Kansas–Nebraska bill, which not only would leave the question of slavery in the territories up to popular sovereignty, but as originally amended would also deny immigrants the right to vote or hold public office. The bill was roundly condemned in the Wisconsin press, as editors such as Horace Rublee (Wisconsin State Journal), Rufus King (Milwaukee Sentinel) and Sherman Booth (Waukesha Free Democrat) encouraged the formation of a new party by calling for an anti-Nebraska convention at the state capitol in Madison. At a large meeting in Milwaukee on February 13, Booth led a committee that drafted many of the resolutions that would later be the basis for other anti-Nebraska meetings in the state, including the famous meeting in Ripon.
Birth of the Republican Party
The organizer of the meeting that gave birth to America’s Republican Party was New York state native Alvan Earle Bovay, a lawyer and mathematics teacher at Ripon College. In 1852 Bovay traveled to New York City during the national Whig Party convention and met with old friend and New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Bovay suggested the name “Republican” for a new anti-slavery party that would replace the fading Whigs. He favored it because it was a simple word rather than a compound name like Free Soil or Free Democrat, that it could be used as either a noun or an adjective, that it would remind people of Thomas Jefferson‘s affiliation, and that it symbolized what he believed the new party should represent: “Res Publica,” synonymous with commonwealth. Bovay also believed that the name would attract immigrant voters that had recently fled monarchies.
On February 26, 1854 Bovay sent a letter to Greeley urging him to editorialize about a new Republican party, without result. In the meantime he organized a public meeting at the Congregational Church in Ripon on March 1, where resolutions were passed condemning the Nebraska bill and promising a new party if it became law. The Senate passed the bill two days later, which prompted Bovay to organize another meeting in Ripon at Schoolhouse Dist. No. 2 on March 20, 1854 at 6:30 p.m. Composed of Whigs, Democrats and Free Soilers, 54 of Ripon’s 100 voters filled the schoolhouse to capacity and were nearly unanimous in their support of a new party with Bovay’s suggested name Republican. Bovay wrote Greeley on June 4 urging him to publicize the name before Michigan and Wisconsin held their state anti-Nebraska conventions, which Greeley did in a Tribune editorial on June 24.
Organizing the Republican Party of Wisconsin
On June 9 Sherman Booth repeated the call for a mass convention in Madison, and suggested July 13, the anniversary of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that had banned slavery in the Northwest Territory. Other Wisconsin editors concurred and publicized the convention.
Beginning in the capitol’s assembly chamber, the state convention was moved outdoors due to the many delegates and supporters arriving, with the crowd topping one thousand. The proceedings were run by experienced Whigs and Free Soilers, with editors Booth and King controlling the platform and nominating officers from all three major parties. Resolutions included abrogating the Fugitive Slave Act, re-instating Kansas and Nebraska as free states and banning all future slave states. They also resolved to invite all persons “whether of native or foreign birth” to join the party, and a committee was assigned to establish a Republican German newspaper in Milwaukee. All resolutions were passed unanimously, and nine hearty cheers went up for the state’s new Republican Party.
After winning over much of the foreign-language press, the new party was very successful in the fall elections, helped greatly by the fact that the state Democrats were deeply split over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Republicans elected two of Wisconsin’s three congressmen (Cadwallader C. Washburn and Charles Billinghurst), as well as winning enough seats in the state legislature to elect the country’s first Republican senator, Charles Durkee. By 1857 they not only controlled the governorship and the state legislature by large majorities, but also held all three Congressional seats and both U.S. Senate seats.
Despite such electoral domination, the Republican party was split over many issues. Many former Whigs pressed for temperance legislation, resulting in charges of nativism from many of the Germans brought into the party by Carl Schurz. United by national events like the Dred Scot decision, abolitionists still drove the party agenda, but were criticized for showing more concern for the black slave than for the white man. Following Sherman Booth’s role in inciting the liberation of runaway slave Joshua Glover from a Milwaukee jail in 1854, many Republicans championed the issue of states’ rights, declaring the Fugitive Slave Law effectively repealed in Wisconsin. Some in the party anticipated a confrontation with the federal government. Governor Alexander Randall ordered an Irish militia disbanded because he doubted their loyalty to Wisconsin. Many in the militia subsequently perished in the shipwreck of the Lady Elgin.
The Civil War era
The Wisconsin delegation to the 1860 Republican convention backed Senator William Seward for president, but quickly supported Abraham Lincoln once his nomination appeared inevitable. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, governors like Randall and Edward Salomon vigorously endorsed the war and mustered thousands of troops to meet the federal quotas, later resorting to a draft.
Politically, the Civil War was a boon to the Republicans. Returning officers like Brigadier General Lucius Fairchild, who had lost an arm at Gettysburg, were the perfect spokesmen for the party. Fairchild later became a three-term governor. Republicans could forever claim they fought to preserve the Union, and veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic became a powerful constituency.
The state Republican chairman from 1859-1869 was Wisconsin State Journal editor Horace Rublee, who with former governor Randall, Madison postmaster Elisha W. Keyes and others became known as the “Madison Regency.” Randall later became President Andrew Johnson‘s postmaster general, and with Keyes they steered federal patronage jobs to political allies and strengthened the party’s hold on the statehouse. Despite such power the state Republicans were divided into factions, with the more ideological members opposed to Johnson’s vetoes of Freedman legislation and President Ulysses S. Grant‘s corrupt administration (many later joining Carl Schurz’s Liberal Republican Party in 1872). Another faction of patronage-seekers and loyal veterans supported Grant as a bulwark against what they saw as a traitorous Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the Republicans would continue to dominate Wisconsin government for the next six decades with few interruptions.
The 1870s and 1880s
Rublee ran a quiet campaign in the legislature for possible election as U.S. Senator, but after losing to Matthew H. Carpenter, Rublee was appointed by Grant minister to Switzerland in 1869. The party machinery was left in the hands of “Boss” Keyes. Yet the Industrial Age hailed a shift of Republican power away from Madison, to wealthy men like Philetus Sawyer of Oshkosh, whose lumber fortune would help fund the party and advance him from mayor to state legislator to congressman to U.S. senator. Milwaukee’s Henry C. Payne rose from dry goods dealer to the Young Men’s Republican Club, where he engineered a voter registration drive among the city’s immigrants to vote the Republican ticket. In 1876 Payne was appointed Milwaukee’s postmaster, a powerful source of patronage jobs. He later became wealthy as a manager of banks, utilities and railroads. John C. Spooner of Hudson was the principal attorney for the West Wisconsin Railroad, and his manipulation of land grants into Sawyer’s hands contributed to his future as party insider, and later, U.S. senator alongside Sawyer. Upon his return from Europe Rublee resumed the chairmanship of the party. With help from backers, he purchased the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1882 and was its editor until his death in 1896.
The Republicans briefly lost control of state government following the Panic of 1873, when a reform coalition of Democrats, Grangers and Liberal Republicans elected Democrat William Taylor as governor. Immigrant backlash against Republican-supported temperance legislation was also a major factor. In 1874 Republicans backed the weak railroad regulation of the Potter Law, but replaced the law with the even weaker Vance Law once they returned to power the next year.
Civil War veteran Jeremiah Rusk of Viroqua proved a popular Republican governor during his three terms (1882-1889). A farmer, Rusk supported measures that improved the state’s agriculture, such as university-run experimental farms. He was later appointed the country’s first Secretary of Agriculture by president Benjamin Harrison. In 1886, he issued the “shoot to kill” order to the National Guard in response to widespread May Day strikes in Milwaukee, resulting in the Bay View Tragedy that left seven people dead. Despite the loss of life, Rusk’s decision was applauded in state newspapers as well as nationally. Rusk’s administration was followed by that of another Republican farmer, William Hoard (1889-1891), who published a widely read journal on dairy farming.
In 1890 the Republicans were swept from state offices again when the party ran afoul of ethnic politics by supporting the Bennett Law, a compulsory school attendance measure that stipulated that all classes must be taught in English. Immigrant groups and supporters of parochial schools condemned the law while Governor Hoard and the Milwaukee Sentinel continued to defend it. Democrats won in a landslide, but the GOP returned to power two years later.
The Progressive Era
During the 1890s the state Republican party was split into two factions. The stalwart faction in power was led by wealthy men such as Sawyer, Payne, Spooner and Charles F. Pfister (who would purchase the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1900). The other faction (the “halfbreeds”) was composed of reform-minded Republicans such as Dunn County’s Albert R. Hall and Soldiers Grove’s James O. Davidson who saw the powerful railroad and utility monopolies (such as The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company (TMER&L)) cheating their customers and corrupting their politicians.
Following three terms as a stand-pat Republican congressman from Madison, Robert M. La Follette emerged as the leader of an insurgent movement to wrest control of the party from the stalwart machine. La Follette had backed other anti-machine Republicans for governor before first running for the office in 1896. He campaigned on a platform of election reform and corporate accountability while accusing the stalwarts of bribery. After being elected governor on his third attempt in 1900, he spent his three terms fighting for primary elections and taxation of corporations based on the value of property. In 1904 the stalwarts fought bitterly against his second re-election with the use of bribed editors and a rump convention, but La Follette prevailed and saw his reforms passed. The state legislature elected him U.S. senator in 1905.
Succeeding La Follette as governor was James O. Davidson, who supported and signed into law reforms such as state regulation of industries, insurance companies and other businesses. Governor Francis E. McGovern followed with an even more progressive program that resulted in a state income tax, workers compensation, child labor laws and encouragement of cooperatives. Regardless of Davidson and McGovern’s successes, La Follette ran his own loyal candidates against them, splitting the state’s progressive Republicans and resulting in the 1912 election of the stalwarts’ candidate Emanuel Philipp as governor. Despite campaigning on promises to dismantle progressive programs, Philipp proved to be a moderate, leaving nearly all of the reforms intact.
World War I
As World War I raged in Europe, most Wisconsin Republicans moved cautiously from neutrality to preparedness. One exception was Sen. La Follette, an outspoken opponent of American participation in the war. In February 1917 he led a group of progressive senators in blocking President Woodrow Wilson‘s bill to arm merchant ships. La Follette’s actions made him nationally notorious. After being misquoted in a speech as having no grievances against Germany, he was abandoned by many of his longtime associates and later threatened with expulsion from the Senate. Gov. Philipp also opposed arming merchant ships and conscription, but after war was declared he administered the state’s war effort, marshaled state resources and formed councils to conduct the draft, sell Liberty bonds, generate propaganda and stifle dissent.
The war shattered the traditional alignments within the state’s parties. Many progressives joined the stalwarts in supporting Wisconsin’s war measures, while many immigrant voters abandoned Wilson’s Democratic Party. Loyalty became a prime issue in political campaigns, to the detriment of farmers and others shortchanged by the war. Even after the Armistice, super-patriots like state senator Roy P. Wilcox of Eau Claire weren’t above accusing party figures like Gov. Philipp and Sen. Irvine Lenroot of divided loyalties. To thwart Wilcox’s run for governor in 1920, the Philipp and La Follette forces separately supported John Blaine, the former mayor of Boscobel and a La Follette progressive.
During the 1920s state Republicans racked up a decade of tremendous legislative majorities. For example, in 1925 the Democrats held no seats in the state senate and only one in the assembly, while the Republicans held 92 assembly seats. But with the end of the war, factions within the party began to re-assert themselves, and a second wave of progressives returned to power. La Follette was decisively re-elected senator in 1922, and two years later he ran for president on a Progressive Party ticket against President Calvin Coolidge. He received every sixth vote cast nationally, but only carried Wisconsin. He died in 1925, but the La Follette name and his brand of Republicanism were carried on by his two sons. Robert La Follette, Jr. defeated Wilcox in the special election to fill his father’s senate seat, while his younger brother Philip F. La Follette was elected Dane County district attorney.
To fight the progressives, conservative Republicans organized the Republican Voluntary Committee as a political action group to strategize and raise large donations outside the state party. The RVC cited a Wisconsin Manufacturers Association-financed study that concluded that businesses were leaving the state due to high taxes, but the report was refuted by economists that proved manufacturing had grown in the state. The study backfired and Gov. Blaine succeeded in shifting the tax burden from property to income.
With help from the Republican Voluntary Committee the stalwarts returned to the governorship with the 1928 election of Walter J. Kohler of Kohler Company, a plumbing fixture manufacturer who practiced an industrial policy of benevolence towards his workers (including the planned community of Kohler) as a guard against unions. Like President Herbert Hoover, Kohler was stimied by the stock market crash of 1929, and his attempts to mitigate the effects of the Depression were ineffective. Running for re-election in 1930 Kohler was beaten decisively in the Republican primary by Phil La Follette, who led a successful slate of progressive allies to state office and Congress in the general election.
Decline of the Progressive faction
After the 1930s and 1940s, the influence of the progressive faction began to wane as many eventually left office or joined the Democrats and the conservatives gradually took control. In 1934, Philip La Follette and Robert M. La Follette, Jr. established the Wisconsin Progressive Party which was an alliance between the longstanding “Progressive” faction of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, led by the La Follette family and their political allies, and certain radical farm and labor groups active in Wisconsin at the time. The party served as a vehicle for Philip to run for re-election as Governor of Wisconsin and for Robert to run for re-election to the United States Senate. Both men were successful in their bids, and the party saw a number of other victories as well in the 1934 and 1936 election, notably winning several U.S. House seats and a majority of the Wisconsin State Senate and Wisconsin State Assembly in 1936. Their grip on power was short-lived, however, and they succumbed to a united Democratic and Republican front in 1938 which swept most of them out of office, including Philip. They were further crippled that year by attempting to expand the party to the national level. As the Progressives formed their own party, this allowed conservativism to increasingly dominate the Republican Party. The Progressive Party would continue to have an increasingly diminishing influence at the state level until the late 1940s when Robert M. La Follette Jr was defeating by Joe McCarthy and the last of the progressive party was out of office. 
Following World War II many progressives were either defeated or joined the Democratic Party. Conservatives increasingly began to dominate the Republican Party at the expense of Moderates.
The current stance of the Wisconsin Republican party is in line with that of the national Republican Party. It includes such ideals as reducing state expenditure to help with both state and national deficit, promoting the belief that the Constitution protects life at conception, and becoming a nation that has alternative energy sources. The entire document, which was passed on May 22, 2010, can be found here in its entirety.
2009 Republican Party of Wisconsin Convention
2010 Republican Party of Wisconsin Convention
The 2010 party convention was held May 21–23 in Milwaukee. The convention was the largest in RPW history with over 1500 delegates registering and participating in the convention. The convention endorsed Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker for Governor with 91% of the vote.
2011 Republican Party of Wisconsin Convention
The 2011 RPW convention was held May 20–22 in Wisconsin Dells. The convention was held at Glacier Canyon Lodge at the Wilderness.
2012 Republican Party of Wisconsin Convention
The 2012 RPW Convention will be held May 11–13 at the KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay. The convention will begin the final push for the Republican defense of the 2012 Recall Election of Governor Scott Walker.
Current elected officials
The Wisconsin Republican Party controls none of the statewide offices and holds a majority in both the Wisconsin Senate and Wisconsin State Assembly. Republicans also hold one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and four of the state’s 8 U.S. House of Representatives seats.
Members of Congress
United States Senate
United States House of Representatives
- President of the Senate: Roger Roth
- Senate Republican Leader: Scott L. Fitzgerald
- Speaker of the Assembly: Robin Vos
- Assembly Majority Leader: Jim Steineke
- Richard N. Current, The History of Wisconsin, Vol. II, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976, p. 214.
- Richard N. Current, The History of Wisconsin, Vol. II, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976, p. 218.
- “The Public Life and Private Affairs of Sherman M. Booth” by Diane S. Butler, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 1999, p. 175.
- Gilman, A. F. The origin of the Republican Party. (Wisconsin : A.F. Gilman?, 1914?). Online facsimile at: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=137
- “The Public Life and Private Affairs of Sherman M. Booth” by Diane S. Butler, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 1999, p. 179.
- “The Public Life and Private Affairs of Sherman M. Booth” by Diane S. Butler, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 1999, p. 182.
- Wisconsin Daily [State] Journal, July 14, 1854
- Richard N. Current, The History of Wisconsin, Vol. II State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976, p. 222-224
- Wisconsin Blue Book 2003-2004, “Political Composition of the Wisconsin Legislature 1885-2003,” p. 260.
- The History of Wisconsin 1914-1940 by Paul W. Glad, 1990. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, p.309-310.
- Wisconsin Progressive Party The Historical Marker Database
- “2012 Republican Party of Wisconsin State Convention”. Eventbrite. Retrieved 5 April 2018.
- Republican Party of Wisconsin
- “Wisconsin and the Republican Party” from the Wisconsin Historical Society