By Jerome R. Stockfisch / Tampa Tribune
TAMPA --They're front and center on the convention floor, they've got sweet digs just up the street from the arena, and their speakers have been bathed in standing ovations.
We're not talking about the host Florida delegation. Nor representatives of the GOP stronghold states such as Texas or South Carolina.
No, the darlings of the 2012 Republican National Convention are the humble delegates from America's Dairyland, long the domain of Fighting Bob La Follette and the Progressives, the leftists of MadTown and the last big-city socialist mayor.
"We are in the middle of a Cheesehead Revolution," said Sol Grosskopf, a Wisconsin delegate replete with suit, bowtie and the headgear he referenced. "People like Scott Walker, Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan, they are Badgers that are leading this country in the right direction."
Indeed, those three Wisconsin Republicans have galvanized a previously unheralded delegation now basking in national attention.
"You'd have to go pretty far back to think of such nationally influential political figures from Wisconsin," said Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a former Democratic state legislator. "Since the 1950s, we've never had this kind of moment in the sun."
Walker, the state's governor, became a GOP luminary when he recently beat back a recall effort after he challenged union rights and instilled steep cuts in the state budget. Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, quietly turned around a party mired in debt and acrimony. And Ryan served as head of the U.S. House Budget Committee before GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose him as his running mate.
"The current trifecta, I think, is remarkable," said Charles Franklin, a visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
So how did the three men reach such heights in a state that went solidly for President Barack Obama in 2008?
First, don't paint Wisconsin with an exclusively blue brush, Mordecai said. "For some reason, the national consciousness of us has a very selective memory, and that is that we are predominantly left-of-center and progressive," he said. Republicans dominate the state Assembly while Democrats hold just a one-vote lead in the state Senate. An open U.S. Senate seat to be decided in November could yield a second Wisconsin Republican in the upper chamber.
The three Dairy State Republicans have been able to moderate the strong ideology of the GOP, tea party and right-wing talk radio, Mordecai said.
"When you hear Rush (Limbaugh) or the tea party rallies, Republican ideology comes across as a kind of mean father, a finger-waving, sort of harsh, negative unsympathetic and unempathetic, 'Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.'"
Successful Republicans like the Wisconsin trio, Mordecai said, "have reformulated it into a more gentle and moderate sounding ideology."
He compared their success to that of Ronald Reagan, who was able to make the positions of Barry Goldwater appear reasonable and fair. "They're the sons of Reagan," Lee said.
Add to that a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, "while the Republicans are serving up alternatives," said Marquette's Franklin.
In any case, it's cool to be a Badger in Tampa.
"It's a circus," said Barbara Finger, a delegate from Oconto. "The day we had the abbreviated session (Monday), it took us an hour to get out of here" as worldwide media descended on the Wisconsin clan.
"We're 'it' tonight," added Stanley delegate Charlotte Rasmussen as she waited for Ryan to address the convention. "Oh, my gosh, is it exciting."