The Birthplace of the Republican Party Buckles After Trump Nearly Blew Up the GOP

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Bishop Sr. had seen a moment like this before, he said, when President Richard Nixon resigned. His parents kept a framed photograph of Richard and Pat Nixon on the wall behind the bar in their house. When Nixon left, he said, “That really tore the party apart.”

The comparison is imperfect. Nixon stepped down voluntarily; Trump lost by a wide electoral margin yet refused to concede. A disgraced Nixon didn’t try to keep control over the party the way Trump is now doing. But he did bring a sense of national embarrassment that rocked the party back on its heels — and eventually, after Nixon left the White House, Bishop Sr. said, “everybody got over it. It took a few years for the Republicans to get reorganized, but they did.” Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, just six years later.

“I think it’s just waiting,” he said. “The next election comes, and people start focusing on that.”

In Wisconsin, there are reasons to think that at least some segment of the Republican electorate is prepared to look past Trump. They may already have been looking past him in November. Of the state’s five Republican-held House seats, the Republican running — and winning — in each district in November outperformed Trump in his district. And Republicans fared relatively well down-ballot nationwide.

It is possible that, for general election purposes in future years, the rift in the party is overstated. Andrew Hitt, the Republican Party chair in Wisconsin, thinks so. “If there’s any disagreement, it’s about who you’re going to support in the next [primary] election. That just seems like a very run-of-the-mill primary discussion, which happens all the time, and parties work through that, and have worked through that for decades.”

That’s true. In Fond du Lac, the county clerk, Lisa Freiberg, recalled that right after Hillary Clinton’s surprising loss to Trump in 2016, it was the Democrats who appeared adrift. Eight years before that, with Barack Obama’s election, Toney, the district attorney, remembered hearing “the Republican Party was dead.”

The anger and sense of division, he suggested, is partly just a symptom of a normal postelection reckoning. “I would never judge any party based on what we’re seeing right now,” he said.

For the next four years, Republicans will have a common foil in the White House. They are pushing, largely in unison, for new voting restrictions in states across the country. And in Wisconsin, there’s Evers and his management of the coronavirus pandemic for Republicans to organize against.

Scott Walker, the Republican former governor of Wisconsin, predicts Republicans will find they have more in common than not. Like Bishop Sr., he likened the moment to the post-Nixon era, “where you got different wedges of people in the movement.”

“As conservatives, we’ve just got to get back to the basics,” Walker said. “I think that’s what they did in Ripon. … The people who came together and called themselves Republicans in Ripon were of this core sense of not just being opposed to slavery, but of freedom, they were fundamentally about freedom.”

Asked whether getting “back to basics” required Republicans to not only rally around common ideals but also give something up, Walker said, “Well, we’ll see. Who knows what ultimately happens with President Trump. Obviously he’s going to be a factor. … But how big of a factor?”

One sign of how the party may find a way past its divisions came on Bishop’s lunch break one Friday in January. While on a walk, he got a call from Toney, the district attorney. Toney knew Bishop was under siege. But his opinion was that in local politics, the deeper relationships people have with one another — even among those who disagree — make it harder for people to stay mad.

It was a brief conversation, but on the phone that afternoon, Bishop and Toney talked about the party and about the Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon, the small, white frame structure with “Birthplace of The Republican Party” above the door.

“We do have some special responsibility in being caretakers of the party,” Toney said. “And that’s where we have to be united in bringing people together.”

In fact, by mid-January, Bishop said the criticism he took immediately after the election was already waning. Talk about the election was, too. (Of the 15 Wisconsin state lawmakers who signed on to a Jan. 5 letter asking then-Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the election results, none responded to requests for comment for this article. Nor did Rep. Tom Tiffany, one of the two House members from Wisconsin who voted against certification. A spokesperson for the other, Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, said he had no comment.) One night after dinner, Bishop’s wife asked him why he was being so quiet. He had been rethinking his decision to quit the chair role, and he told her “I might be making the wrong decision.” Bishop announced he was going to run for reelection, and he asked Toney to renominate him.

Nobody in Fond du Lac County knew what to expect when the county party met for its annual caucus in early February. Were the Trump loyalists going to mount a challenge to the local chair who dared to question their leader? Sam Kaufman, a county supervisor and the party’s treasurer, had heard “some grumblings in the background about having somebody else nominated for chairman.” Freiberg, the county clerk, had picked up on discontent — “just hearsay,” she said. In part for that reason, despite a gathering snowstorm, the meeting at the Sunset on the Water Grill and Bar, on the southeast shore of Lake Winnebago, drew a crowd.

And then—nothing.

Bishop was reelected unanimously. No one even ran against him.

Kiser, the former supervisor who had left the voicemail for Bishop, still feels the same way about him. “I think he’s an idiot,” he said.

But Kiser, a former vice chair of the party, had long ago pulled away from the party apparatus. And no one else stepped up to spearhead a challenge. Even among Bishop’s critics, Kaufman said, there was a recognition, that he is a “dedicated, hard worker. … He’s always just got his hands in it, under control.”

“Plus,” Kaufman said, “no one else wants it, I don’t think. It’s a lot of work.”

Bishop was so moved that when he stood up to thank the room, someone asked him whether he was going to start crying.

It was after 10 p.m. when Bishop left the restaurant and climbed into his car. The wind was whipping snow in off the frozen lake. Driving back to Waupun on Highway 151, he said, “So, I’ve got the job for two more years.”