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Why Donald Trump’s Attack on the ‘Cheesehead Revolution’ Is Failing

Donald Trump in Appleton, WI.Donald Trump in Appleton, WI.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton, WI on Wednesday March 30, 2016The Washington Post/Getty Images

Donald Trump handily walloped Wisconsin governor Scott Walker when the two were competing for the Republican nomination. But in the days leading up to next week’s Wisconsin Republican primary, he’s now on Walker’s turf. And this time, in the battle for Wisconsin, the governor seems to be exacting his revenge.

In a Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday, Ted Cruz leapfrogged into the frontrunner position in Wisconsin, winning the support of 40% of likely voters, while Trump topped out at 30%. The same poll found that more than half of all likely voters in the state said they would be “very uncomfortable” with a President Trump.

At first blush, Wisconsin may look like an easy Trump win, with its sizable pockets of blue-collar and rural voters. But the brash Manhattanite has found himself less welcome in the Rust Belt state than he likely expected.

Wisconsin’s leadership has not been welcoming to Trump. Unlike in Arizona, where the frontrunner picked up endorsements from former Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he has been unable to garner any support from influencers in Wisconsin. Indeed, even before Trump’s first campaign event in the state, he blundered through an interview with conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes, who he learned was a vocal member of the Republican #NeverTrump movement while on air. Trump was also snubbed by Governor Scott Walker, who officially endorsed Ted Cruz as “best positioned by far” to win the GOP nomination and general election.

It’s worth remembering that Wisconsin is the home turf of two of the most powerful mainstream Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, not to mention Governor Walker, who has been considered a rising GOP star. The trio have become known as the “Cheesehead Revolution” for their shared roots and leading roles in the direction of the Republican Party—at least, until Trump came along and threw the party into turmoil. In fact, in 2012, during Ryan’s vice presidential campaign, one party operative told The Atlantic that Wisconsin is the new Texas due to its ability to incubate Republican leaders. And Donald Trump is anything but mainstream Republican.

Ryan, Priebus, and Walker have built reputations as aggressive—but Wisconsin-nice—reformers who are obsessed with fiscal conservatism. Their consistent brand of aw-shucks frugality defines their public personas, with Walker bragging about buying $1 sweaters at Kohl’s and Ryan sleeping in his Capitol Hill office (rather than renting an apartment) when Congress is in session. With some estimates that Trump’s tax plan would increase the federal deficit by somewhere between $10 trillion and $12 trillion over the next decade, it’s safe to say the businessman is not a fiscal conservative.

Governor Walker may not have the love of the historically progressive state, but he has earned the approval of Wisconsin’s Republican voters. In fact, 80% of GOP members likely to vote in the primary next week approve of his work. He has crushed public sector unions. He’s slashed taxes, cut school funding, banned abortions without exception after 20 weeks, loosened campaign finance law, relaxed environmental standards, and cut the state’s food stamp program.

And that might be the rub for Trump, who continues to make the case to the state’s voters that Wisconsin is “in turmoil” under Walker. If he wants a fighting chance on April 5, Trump may need to change his tune quickly.