The Cheesehead Mafia: Paul Ryan and the Rise of Wisconsin Republicans

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How Ryan, Scott Walker and Reince Priebus came out of the Badger State together to reshape American conservative politics.

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Reuters

In 2006, Brad Courtney, a Republican activist and forklift-business owner in suburban Milwaukee, threw a Christmas party at his house near Lake Michigan. Republicans had recently been trounced in another state election, failing to unseat either the Democratic governor or U.S. senator on the ballot. The Milwaukee County executive, an old friend of Courtney's named Scott Walker, was there, as was another die-hard party activist, Reince Priebus. Outside, a snowstorm raged, and an up-and-coming young congressman, Paul Ryan, called to say he wasn't going to be able to make it.

"We all sort of grew up together in politics," Courtney, now the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, told me. But at the time, the men often had little but their friendships to sustain them in the face of a hostile political landscape.

Today, things look very different. Here's a poster Courtney received as an email forward, created by a talk-radio host in Arizona,* that celebrates Wisconsin's political stars alongside the state's recent success in athletics and beauty pageants:

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Ryan, Walker and Priebus are three of the GOP's brightest national stars, and Wisconsin -- the state that helped birth the Progressive Movement and shape the New Deal -- is suddenly the leading exporter of a hard-charging, sharply ideological brand of conservatism. The Republican trio sometimes dubbed the "Cheesehead Mafia" have made their state "the capital of the Obama-era Republican resistance," as one writer put it. And they are reshaping the Republican Party.

"People in this country are hungry for real, authentic people who make promises and keep their promises. That's what you're seeing come out of Wisconsin," Priebus, who now chairs the Republican National Committee, said in an interview. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Priebus became close friends with a man named Andy Speth who would go on to become Ryan's chief of staff and top adviser. Around the same time, Priebus also interned at the state legislature, where he met a young member of the assembly: Walker, elected at the age of 25 in 1993.

Today, Walker is the governor whose assault on public-sector unions provoked an angry backlash -- and whose survival of recall election this summer cemented his status as conservative folk hero. Priebus, elected to the national committee after years as a Wisconsin party lawyer and official, has steered the national party out of debt while keeping its disparate factions on message and in the tent. And then there's Ryan, the onetime enfant terrible of the House of Representatives, who has shepherded his vision of budget-slashing entitlement reform from an idea so extreme no one would touch it to the official platform of his party -- and galvanized the party base with his presence on the presidential ticket. "What Texas was to the Republican Party in the 1990s," says Nathan Conrad, spokesman for the state GOP, "is what Wisconsin is becoming now."

Ryan, Walker and Priebus have brought a new generation's insurgent mindset to the establishment perches they now inhabit, says Charlie Sykes, a Milwaukee-based conservative radio host on whose show all three have been regulars since the 1990s. "They're all from exactly the same school," Sykes said. "It's a slightly dissident wing of the party that was a little bit frustrated with the old-line Republican [view of] 'tax and spend, but spend it on our tribe.' If you talk to them at any length, they sound remarkably similar."

Though all three are social conservatives -- "they check the box" -- what animates them is an uncompromising commitment to fiscal conservatism. "They are extremely conservative when it comes to taxes, spending, budgets and [attacking] the whole liberal infrastructure," Sykes said. "They really want to do big things, as opposed to your usual politician who just wants to be somebody. There is a kind of edginess to them in that they really see themselves as change agents."

Unlike a more traditional, status quo-oriented brand of conservative, the new Wisconsinites are self-styled reformers. They're looking not just to rein in what they see as liberalism's excesses, but to roll back the welfare state, from state workers' pensions to seniors' Medicare benefits. And while that rigid policy vision has bitterly polarized a state that has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election since 1984, the conservative reformers have succeeded in part by making sure to get rid of internal competition. Long before the Tea Party crusaded to drive moderates out of the GOP nationally, Wisconsin Republicans were redefining their party as explicitly conservative, purging moderates in primaries in the 1990s and, led by Priebus, using the party's clout to direct resources to candidates like Walker.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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