Wisconsin Republicans sought to rally their base Saturday at an annual convention in Green Bay that was much smaller than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans — mostly without face masks and sitting close to each other — provided a contrast to Democrats, who turned their state convention into an entirely virtual event last month because health officials have advised against large gatherings.
Republicans used their convention to urge people to vote for President Donald Trump, blame the Chinese government for the coronavirus, contend their opponents were trying to erase history by tearing down statues, and rip into Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau called Evers a “reluctant candidate” who ran in 2018 because Democrats believed he was the only one who could beat Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“I don’t think he wanted the job and, quite honestly, I don’t think the governor is up to the job,” Fitzgerald said.
He argued Evers wasn’t running the state and had left that work to his aides. He chastised Evers for his staff secretly recording him and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in a May conference call, calling the recording “the epitome of disrespect.”
A spokeswoman for Evers offered no response to Fitzgerald. Evers has said he was unaware of the recording at the time and would not allow it to happen again.
Many of the convention speakers focused on Black Lives Matter protests and the desecration of statues. They said Democrats want to rewrite history and send the country into chaos.
As he made that argument, Rep. Mike Gallagher of Green Bay contended China had “unleashed” the coronavirus on the world. Later, he claimed it had been unleashed by the country’s Communist Party. The virus first spread in China but Gallagher did not provide evidence that the party had released it.
“I can’t help but think looking at what’s going on around the country that (former President Ronald) Reagan would be rolling in his grave,” Gallagher said. “In the midst of a pandemic unleashed by a different communist adversary that has taken over half a million lives worldwide and 40 million jobs in America, we have seen violent mobs take to our streets in order to erase our history and reject our founding principles.”
Gallagher noted statues of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg and Presidents George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln have been toppled or defaced. He did not mention that most of the statues that have been targeted have memorialized Confederate leaders.
“I believe our children will look back at this moment and ask where we stood,” he said. “So let them say we stood up to the mobs trying to erase our history.”
Others took up the same theme. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in a video message said “radical anarchists” had hijacked protests over police brutality. U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany of Minocqua decried the establishment of an “autonomous zone” in Seattle.
“They’re the modern-day secessionists, going back to 1860 that tried to tear this country apart,” Tiffany said of the Seattle protesters. “That is not the route that Americans want to go.”
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman of Glenbeulah said Trump’s support for the police made the country safer.
“Donald Trump stood with the police after an administration that talked about the police being racist, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” Grothman said. “We finally had a president who stood with the police. And what was the result of standing with the police? Drops in murders.”
Trump adviser Mercedes Schlapp emphasized the importance of police and suggested large cities were falling into anarchy.
“Do we want to be the next Seattle? Do we want to be the next Minneapolis? Do we want to be the next Chicago?” she asked the crowd, which responded with vigorous nos.
She mocked Democratic U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois for recently holding a virtual event for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“I don’t think anyone was watching,” Schlapp said.
The Republican Party offered attendees free face masks, but few chose to wear them. It encouraged them to use hand sanitizer and asked them to maintain their distance from others, but many did not follow that advice.
The party also alerted attendees it was not responsible for anyone getting sick.
It provided attendees with a flyer that stated, “As with any public activity, there are risks assumed, and by attending the (Republican Party of Wisconsin) State Convention you acknowledge and assume any potential risk and liability for your own health.”
Democrats called the in-person event irresponsible and dubbed it the #COVIDConvention on Twitter.
“‘Don’t hold the GOP responsible for COVID’ isn’t just the message of the flier at their state party convention. It’s their message for the whole election,” state Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler tweeted.
Ebony Cox of the USA Today Network Wisconsin contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.