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Thursday, April 18, 2024

College Republicans: Life in the 'lion's den'

It was hardly a message potential UW-Madison College Republican members in the audience expected to hear at the group’s first meeting of an election year—that being a Republican in Madison can sometimes feel like being the “political equivalent of a battered woman.”


This came in conservative radio host Vicki Mckenna’s saber-rattling address to Republican students on Sept. 18. To the woman introduced as a “champion of conservatism in Dane County,” Wisconsin’s swing state status brings the beleaguered existence of Madison Republicans to the forefront of the Republican fight to reclaim the White House.


“[You are all] living and walking through history,” Mckenna said. “Here in this room, on this campus, you can save Wisconsin.”


As the joke goes, Madison is “77 square miles surrounded by reality.” College Republicans Chair Jeff Snow, who interned in Gov. Scott Walker’s office at the height of the collective bargaining protests in 2011, was less playful in his description of the city, calling it “the lion’s den of liberalism.”


The challenge Snow’s group faces comes with operating in a voting block that has elected a former student radical, Paul Soglin, as mayor three times in four decades. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., whose voting record places her among the capital’s most progressive elected officials, represents Madison in Washington.


Despite Madison’s liberal inclinations, Communications Director Ryan Patrick Hughes reassured two freshmen that getting involved with the group in election season wouldn’t involve “walking down the street with signs,” a promise that he couldn’t have made a year and a half ago.


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College Republicans Executive Director Tony Trenzeluk remembers marching on the Capitol with 45 other sign-wielding College Republicans to support Walker in February of 2011.


“It was as if the circle [of protestors] around the Capitol stopped and looked at us, and I kind of freaked out,” he said.


A conservative in high school whose friends joked that Madison would turn him into a hippie, Trenzeluk’s experience at the Capitol marked the day his views became “more than just talk.”


“If anything, I’ve become more conservative since I’ve been here,” he said.


It’s a proclamation made all the more surprising given Madison’s political history and the university affiliation of many of its actors: The Mifflin Street Block Party, now celebrated by students and condemned by university officials, has its roots in anti-Vietnam protest. Founded in 1966, the Teaching Assistants’ Association is the oldest union of its kind in the world, and many of its members cancelled classes and left classrooms for the Capitol rotunda in 2011, taking leadership roles among the 100,000 protestors.


Before President Barack Obama’s visit in 2010, the city hadn’t hosted a sitting president since Harry Truman in 1950. This year, his Oct. 4 rally on Bascom Hill attracted 30,000 people and effectively shut down the center of campus for the day—an affair criticized by some faculty members for being a campaign stop rather than a presidential visit.


Widening the frame to include the entire state gives a different political snapshot. The recall effort of Gov. Walker led by the Madison-headquartered state Democratic Party collected nearly one million petition signatures. On June 5, Walker came out on top to become the only governor to have ever survived a recall. He did so with more votes and a greater margin of victory than in 2010.


“[The recall] said a lot,” Snow said. “Hopefully…everyone can feel a little more comfortable being a conservative on campus.”


As the state’s flagship university, UW-Madison attracts students from all corners of Wisconsin—even if you can find the Solidarity Singers at the Capitol every day at noon up the street.


As the College Republicans work to put Republicans into elected office, the Associated Students of Madison student council already boasts a conservative majority, including its chair and vice-chair.


“There are actually a lot of likeminded people here…we’re just the silent minority,” Trenzeluk said.


Leading up to Walker’s recall victory, the College Republicans played a role in the protracted recall battle, validating petition signatures and manning phone banks once the recall was officially declared. According to Snow, much of the grassroots infrastructure put in place to defend Walker from recall has helped Republican efforts on the ground throughout the state for November’s races.


Newer members volunteer at Romney campaign “Victory Centers” and make phone calls; the more experienced have taken on larger roles, such as political director of Chad Lee’s campaign for Congress and deputy statewide field director for Tommy Thompson for Senate.


Beyond the Midwest, UW-Madison College Republicans have made their presence known. Hughes was one of four UW-Madison interns with the Republican Nation Committee in Washington this summer, and Snow was on hand in Tampa, Fla., at the Republican National Convention when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., officially joined the GOP ticket as vice-president.


“When you tell people you’re a College Republican at UW-Madison, people will look at you and think you’re resilient,” Hughes said. “[They know] that you stood up on a very liberal campus and you’re very strong with your beliefs.”


The Romney campaign hasn’t forgotten about its people in the lion’s den. While the GOP has yet to send anyone on their presidential ticket to Madison, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s two oldest songs, Tagg and Matt, have made appearances at State Street Brats and The Kollege Klub.


It was standing room only on the second floor of State Streets Brats for Tagg Romney’s visit on Oct 5., and the College Republicans’ two debate watching parties have seen high turnout as well, a constant since the first meetings of the semester.


“We always run out of Walker and Romney/Ryan signs,” Trenzeluk said. “That’s the biggest contrasts from my freshman year…now it’s cool, [to be a conservative on campus].”


If the most recent Marquette Law School poll is any indication, “cool” is catching on. With data from Oct. 11-14, the poll shows Obama with a one-point lead over Romney in Wisconsin, 49 percent to 48 percent, a loss of all but one percentage point of Obama’s 11 point lead two weeks earlier.


“We know we can make a difference in the margins.” Snow said. “It’s going to be an extremely close election—possibly within thousands of votes—and the thousands of votes of students on campus mean a lot.”

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