Republicans’ best hope for Wisconsin Senate is a Trump critic

Republicans’ best hope for Wisconsin Senate is a Trump critic

A public break with former President Donald Trump has been career suicide for many an ambitious GOP lawmaker in recent years. It might just be a boon for Rep. Mike Gallagher.

Top party officials in D.C. and back home in Wisconsin maintain the fourth-term congressman and new head of the China Select Committee represents their best shot at flipping the battleground’s Senate seat in 2024.

There is just one thing they have to do first: convince him to run.

The 39-year-old former Marine is widely viewed as a rising star in the GOP thanks to his vocal stance on China policy and prolific fundraising. Beyond that, key Republicans say his criticism of Trump might just bolster his credibility with the very voters they’ve lost in recent cycles. His nomination would be a strong indication the party is shifting gears and learning the lessons from 2022.

Gallagher has been evasive about his plans. But people close to him say he’s not inclined to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a formidable campaigner and fundraiser in her own right. And they also recognize that Gallagher’s break with Trump over Jan. 6, and recent insistence that the former president “lost [his] support,” will be tricky to navigate, particularly in a potentially messy primary, given Trump’s immense sway over the party in recent years.

Should Gallagher pass on the contest, it could not only hurt Republicans’ chances of claiming the Senate in 2024, it would further underscore the hurdles the party faces in finding a winning electoral formula in a post-Trump world.

In their bid to oust Baldwin, senior Wisconsin Republicans are eager to find a candidate who can bring back the independent and moderate Republican voters in key suburbs who broke with the former president in 2020 and several of his top picks in 2022.

There are some signs that the former president’s grip on the GOP is beginning to slip. He has failed to scare away other presidential primary candidates and recent polling shows he’d face stiff competition from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, among other potential contenders. In Wisconsin, where Ted Cruz beat Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, DeSantis led Trump in a hypothetical 2024 matchup with Biden, according to a Marquette Law Poll from late January. But Trump’s standing in national primary polls has improved since then. And an impending indictment in a hush-money case has compelled many in the party to rally around the former president once more.

One Wisconsin Republican close to Gallagher, who was granted anonymity to talk about their private conversations with him, brushed off the notion that his public break with Trump would hurt him significantly in a future GOP primary. The person noted that the congressman didn’t vote to impeach Trump or approve an independent commission to investigate the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Instead, the person said Gallagher’s relatively lean legislative record on Wisconsin issues is his biggest vulnerability.

“He hasn’t been all that focused on what’s been going on at home,” said the Republican, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. “If there’s an Achilles’ heel, it’s there, not Trump.”

Gallagher’s profile in the party has risen rapidly since he was first elected to Congress in 2016, the same year Trump took the White House — especially in his role as a leading voice on China policy. He burnished his hard-nosed stance as Trump took aim at China’s unfair trading practices and other malign activities, though the economic fallout from the ensuing trade war fell on U.S. agriculture, a top industry in Gallagher’s home state. Asked if he supported Trump’s recent campaign proposal that would levy more tariffs on Chinese goods, something that has raised alarm among some other farm state Republicans, the new head of the House China Select Committee said he wasn’t aware of the former president’s proposal to overhaul U.S. trade with China.

Despite his tensions with Trump, many Republicans are now openly suggesting Gallagher may be the party’s best chance to oust Baldwin, the battle-tested incumbent Democrat, who has already amassed a huge war chest.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is leading Senate Republicans’ effort to flip the chamber and has suggested he will help tap more mainstream candidates this cycle, did not hide his enthusiasm about the prospect of the congressman joining the race.

“Mike Gallagher would be a great candidate,” Daines said. “He’s the kind of candidate that with his distinguished service and then time in Congress, could win both the primary and general election.”

“If Mike got in, everybody would know that’s the total package,” said Brian Schimming, the state’s Republican party chair.

Trump’s specter looms, however. Republicans in Wisconsin expect the former president to campaign there around the time of the state GOP convention in June, if not earlier. And Republicans hold their national convention in Milwaukee in July 2024.

For now, Gallagher insists that he is focused on his high-profile new post as the House GOP’s preeminent China hawk, and not any potential future campaign.

Wisconsin Republicans close to the congressman describe him as “whip smart,” but also “incredibly risk averse” and “extremely deliberative,” sometimes to a point where he’s slow to make decisions. They expect him, however, to likely leave the House after his current or following term in Congress, given his push early in his congressional career to limit House members to six terms in office.

Those Republicans say Gallagher, who beat his last Democratic challenger by 30 points in one of the few semi-swing regions left in the state, is more interested in a 2028 bid to replace Ron Johnson, should the state’s current GOP senator retire as expected, or a possible 2026 gubernatorial run, rather than facing Baldwin, whose own retail politics and fundraising skills make her an intimidating foe.

Should a Republican other than Trump win the White House in 2024, Gallagher, a one-time foreign policy aide to former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign, may be inclined to pursue a role in the administration, according to a Wisconsin GOP lawmaker and another Republican who was granted anonymity to speak openly about their private conversations with Gallagher. A role like national security adviser, Navy secretary or secretary of State would allow him to better deploy his expertise on China and foreign policy.

“The opportunities for Mike become pretty wide,” said one of the Republicans.

As the Wisconsin GOP field waits on Gallagher to make his 2024 plans known, Baldwin has been making moves of her own. She’s preparing to formally launch her campaign shortly after Wisconsin’s closely-watched state supreme court race April 4, according to two people familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss private conversations. Long able to shake the national Democratic brand, Baldwin has consistently outperformed fellow Democrats in the state, including in Gallagher’s home district in the northeast, which spans the city of Green Bay, nearby suburbs and vast stretches of dairy farms, small towns and tribal lands.

Despite Baldwin’s past campaign success, senior Wisconsin Democrats believe her upcoming reelection race will be much closer, and won or lost on the margins like most statewide contests in recent years. Baldwin’s longtime aide Scott Spector is poised for a senior role in her reelect effort according to the two people with knowledge of the campaign plans.

Other possible GOP challengers who may jump in should Gallagher choose not to run include former state Sen. Roger Roth, who won the state’s Republican primary for lieutenant governor last August, according to people familiar with the plans.

Current Reps. Bryan Steil and Tom Tiffany, who has recently been traveling more within the state, have also been floated as possible candidates, especially if redistricting squeezes some members out of their seats. (Since the news of Trump’s possible indictment, Steil and other House GOP members have rushed to defend the former president through letters and on Twitter. Gallagher’s office has meanwhile avoided the subject, tweeting about student loans and local school sports state champions.) Trump’s former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was heavily involved in the midterms, sparking questions as to whether he was laying the groundwork for a run of his own.

David Clarke, a Trump acolyte and former Milwaukee Sheriff; former GOP Rep. Sean Duffy; former Senate and gubernatorial candidate Kevin Nicholson; and Eric Hovde, a wealthy Republican businessman who waged an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2012 are other names that have come up in conversations with GOP officials.

But another Wisconsin Republican acknowledged that many of those candidates “have already used up a lot of their political capital” in prior races. “It’s not a very deep bench.”

Gallagher now appears to be keeping everything in play.

Asked earlier this month on Capitol Hill if he had any interest in challenging Baldwin next year, Gallagher said, “My sole focus is on the select committee on the CCP not thinking about 2024.”

He took a few steps and added: “And providing the best constituent services for northeast Wisconsin.”

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Author: By Meredith Lee Hill