He’s back: Wisconsin Republicans summon Reince Priebus to figure out why they lost big

Before signing on with Trump, Priebus was the RNC chair who ignored a similar autopsy after the party's 2012 defeat.

Then-Trump White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in February 2017.
Then-Trump White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in February 2017. CREDIT: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After a disastrous midterm election, the last Republican statewide elected official standing in Wisconsin has ordered an autopsy to determine what went wrong. And he’s enlisting a familiar name to do the job — despite that person’s complete failure to implement his own similar national GOP autopsy in 2013.

Nov. 6, 2018, was not a good day for Wisconsin’s Republican Party. In addition to double-digit re-election win for Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Democrats defeated incumbent Republicans Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and Attorney General Brad Schimel, and won the open seat of Republican State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk. Come January, Sen. Ron Johnson (who was not up for re-election this year) will be the only Republican statewide elected official.

This should not have come as a huge surprise to the party. While Donald Trump spent most of the year stubbornly pretending a “red wave” was coming in the midterms, an April state Supreme Court election and a June special election presaged the November Wisconsin wipeout. Walker himself repeatedly warned that a “blue wave” might well be coming.

So Johnson announced, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday, that he was eager to get to the bottom of why a state that gave a narrow plurality to Donald Trump in 2016 had swung away from his party two years later.


Enter Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin GOP chairman who was ousted after just six months as Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. Johnson told the paper that Priebus, who was Republican National Chairman from 2011 to 2017, agreed “to participate in a thorough review of the 2018 election and the current party structure — similar to the process he led for the RNC following the 2012 presidential election.”

Even that announcement was tinged with denial.

“This isn’t about a makeover,” Johnson insisted. “This is about continuous improvement and building on a very successful base.”

The 2012 elections were also a big disappointment for the Republican Party. Mitt Romney failed to defeat President Barack Obama, and Democrats gained seats in both the U.S. House and Senate. After seeing his party’s defeat, in 2012 Priebus ordered a “full autopsy of what happened.”

In March 2013, he unveiled the results — the “Growth & Opportunity Project.” The report called for better outreach to women and minorities, recommended efforts to pursue greater diversity, and explicitly recommended that the party coalesce around comprehensive immigration reform. Priebus and his party did none of those things. Instead, Priebus stood by as Donald Trump (who had denounced the autopsy’s pro-immigrant approach) won the party’s nomination using openly racist rhetoric, worked passionately for him in the general election, and then ultimately joined the administration at the top.


By 2016, one of the co-authors of the RNC autopsy was so disgusted by her party’s failure to implement the recommendations that she became an independent and publicly opposed Trump’s candidacy. “I didn’t make this decision lightly—I have worked hard to make our party a place where all would feel welcome,” Sally Bradshaw told CNN. “But Trump has taken the GOP in another direction, and too many Republicans are standing by and looking the other way.”

Sen. Johnson — the only Republican elected statewide in Wisconsin this year — has voted with Trump more than 91 percent of the time, despite Trump’s consistently underwater approval ratings in the state. It does not seem that Johnson is any more interested in evolving than Priebus was after 2012. “We needed a birdie on this par 5, and we did sink a birdie, [but the Democrats] “just sank an eagle putt and won,” he told the Journal Sentinel.  “We were really good, we’ve been excellent. We just need to be even better moving forward if we want consistent victories,” Johnson added.