SOMERS, Wis. – They are Badgers, Brewers and Packers fans.
More comfortable in jeans and boots than suits and ties, they love their state with a passion only a local could comprehend, grew up in middle-class families and speak plainly about not only their values but their political beliefs.
Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus — governor, future U.S. House Ways and Means chairman and chairman of the Republican national party, respectively — never lost their Midwest twangs or the conservative fiscal populism that propelled them into the national spotlight to varying degrees.
None has ever gone full-blown, bubble-encased Washington establishment: Walker never governed there, Ryan doesn’t have an apartment there (instead, sleeping in his office) and Priebus — despite being the face of the establishment party — is the least-establishment chairman ever to hold that office.
Yes, Priebus raises money from big shots. Yes, he looks at races through the lens of which is winnable and which isn’t. And, yes, he has to support incumbents despite challenges by grassroots conservatives, which sometimes angers his base.
But he has proven that he is truer to his roots than to the weeds of D.C.
"Reince is one of the most down-to-earth people I know," Walker said, holding up his iPhone to show a photo of Priebus jumping into Kenosha Harbor this summer after Walker dared him to take the ice-bucket challenge to benefit ALS. "Also somewhat crazy — that water is c-o-l-d," he said, laughingly exaggerating the last word with a shiver.
Priebus — son of a German father and immigrant Greek mother who came to the United States via Sudan — took over the national party in 2011, when it was bankrupt and demoralized. The party made great gains in the 2010 midterms but also squandered a potential Senate takeover with undisciplined, unpolished candidates; its leadership under his predecessor, Michael Steele, was out of touch with main-street Republicans.
The pragmatic Wisconsinite needed seven ballots to win the chairmanship, a year to get the party in financial order and a presidential loss, as well as another squandered Senate-majority opportunity, to draw up an evaluation of the party’s state and to work on pulling together its factions.
As the face of the national party, he has been condemned by some critics as part of the establishment and lacking ideas; both are unfair and unfounded. Plenty of out-of-touch elected Republicans and strategists-in-name-only exist, but Priebus is not part of their clique.
"When you are from Wisconsin, you can’t get away with acting like a big shot. You have to be accessible," he said not just of himself but also of Walker and Ryan. "There isn’t a lot of pomp and circumstance that folks will put up with."
The 42-year-old father of two, who has been married 15 years to the girl he took to his high school prom, said his Badger State roots and friends keep him humble and focused as he pushes to set the tone for the party going forward.
"Look, here’s the bottom line — we can’t just be about saying ‘no’ to everything," he said.
Republicans, he explained, should engage with voters about the economy, about balancing the budget, about starting over with health-care reform that benefits patients and doctors rather than just lobbyists and big business.
They should promote programs to treat veterans well, to keep the country secure with a strong military and a solid energy plan, and to give every child an equal opportunity for a great education: "No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school just because of a ZIP code."
Priebus also believes Republicans should really take on the issue of poverty, not just throw money at it and then walk away. They should be the party that continues America’s tradition of being a welcoming place for those who want to come here by doing so the right way and the party that supports an immigration system which controls the nation’s borders and upholds its laws.
"We need to be bold with our ideas," he said of the reason why people should vote for Republican candidates this midterm election.
"We want people to vote for us and what we stand for, not just against Democrats."
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]