The Dane County Lincoln Day Dinner is an event of Republicans, for Republicans, by Republicans. It is an opportunity for those who have given time and money to the GOP to see and hear the candidates who represent the fruits of their labor.
But even among the party's most loyal supporters gathered in the banner-laden "Madison Ballroom" of the Concourse Hotel, there are murmurs of dissent.
Over watered-down drinks during the cocktail hour, a conversation between two of the party's faithful illustrates the conflict that currently exists within the Wisconsin Republican Party.
"Think we're gonna win the governorship?" asks a short Republican with a mop of dark, finely curled hair that hugs his scalp.
"I don't know, I'm almost ready to vote for Doyle," replies a portly Madisonian, "I'm worried about concealed carry." The man is a regular supporter of the Republican Party. Below his nametag is a blue ribbon, identifying him as someone who's spent several hundreds of dollars to sponsor a table.
"Most states already have it," says the first man.
The other man is unmoved. "Yeah, well if most states jumped off a bridge...."
There are many Republicans like this man. While loyal to their party, they are concerned about some of its more conservative planks. Their discomfort is especially strong on social issues, like embryonic-stem-cell research, abortion, gay marriage and gun control.
But it seems as if the Wisconsin Republican Party is turning its back on these moderates.
This May, at the GOP's convention in Appleton, the party added a resolution to its platform, ostracizing Republican candidates who do not toe the conservative line. Resolution 25 urges "the Republican Party to withhold all promotional and financial support of those candidates that do not consistently subscribe to this overall conservative agenda, be they incumbent or new candidates."
The message is clear: Moderates are no longer welcome in the Republican Party.
On one level, the party's fondness for a conservative agenda is understandable. Emphasizing this agenda, on social issues in particular, has propelled the Republicans to control both houses of the U.S. Congress and both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. And this November, Wisconsin Republicans hope that a social conservative, Mark Green, can wrest the governorship away from Democrat Jim Doyle.
Green, who represents the area near Green Bay in the U.S. House of Representatives, is opposed to gay marriage, abortion and stem-cell research, and supports legislation that would allow Wisconsin residents to carry concealed weapons.
While Green may appeal to social conservatives, many old-school Republicans, like the man at the Lincoln Day Dinner, are less than sanguine about the prospect of his taking up residence in the governor's mansion.
Lee Sherman Dreyfus, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, finds Green's position on the therapeutic cloning of stem cells particularly hard to swallow. "My Republican candidate for governor is absolutely opposed to any kind of stem-cell research" says Dreyfus, "and I can't accept that."
The prominence of social conservatives has alienated many moderate Republicans like Dreyfus. The question remains: How long can socially moderate Republicans stay in a political party that obviously doesn't want them? And can the Republican Party maintain its majority if they do go away?
Conservative radio talk-show hosts do not think much of moderate Republicans like Dreyfus. They often refer to them as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), implying that they lack respect for the basic principles of the Republican Party. If moderates like Dreyfus were really Republicans, the critics say, they would embrace the party's stance on social issues.
Dreyfus disagrees. The people making this argument, he says, "don't know the history of the party. Those of us who are moderate Republicans or [from] the old La Follette progressive line in the Republican Party are not at all happy with what is happening."
Throughout U.S. history, the Republican Party has been a force of reason and moderation. The nation's first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, is generally regarded as among its finest. Green, speaking at the Lincoln Day Dinner, does not miss the opportunity to make the connection. "You and I," he tells the group, "we are the heirs of Abraham Lincoln."
The Party of Lincoln has come a long way since it was formed in 1857 by angry abolitionists in a one-room schoolhouse in Ripon, Wis. At that time, the party platform was pretty straightforward and relatively one-dimensional. As Bob Delaporte, the communications director for the Wisconsin Republican Party, puts it, "We were basically founded as an anti-slavery party."
In the late 1800s, the Wisconsin Republican Party became an agent of progressive change under the leadership of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette. As governor, La Follette championed progressive causes like a minimum wage, nonpartisan elections, open primaries, direct election of U.S. senators, and women's suffrage.
This progressive legacy was intact through Dreyfus' tenure. As Wisconsin governor from 1979 to 1983, Dreyfus signed the nation's first law that made sexual orientation a protected category under the state's existing anti-discrimination statute.
Throughout their history, Republicans have advocated for a smaller and more limited government, especially at the federal level. One of the bedrocks of the Republican Party is that society works best when citizens maintain maximum control over their own fate, with the government only serving in areas where people cannot help themselves.
But today, the Republican Party seems to be abandoning some of these principles. Wisconsin's GOP-controlled Legislature keeps trying to pass laws that restrict individual freedoms in order to preserve community values.
During the most recent legislative session, Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages and similar civil unions, a law that would ban the therapeutic cloning of embryonic stem cells, and a law that protects pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions that offend their sense of morality.
Can the party that has always advocated a limited role for government sustain its new relationship with social conservatives, who feel the government has a responsibility to get involved with social and cultural issues?
Count Ann Peckham among those who feel that the Republican Party's stance on social issues is, well, un-Republican. A Wisconsin delegate to many Republican National Conventions, Peckham does not think the state Legislature should be meddling with a woman's right to choose and the economic prospects and potential cures that stem-cell research might bring Wisconsin. And while she thinks marriage is between a man and women, she does not think the government should prevent same-sex couples from forming civil unions and devoting their lives to each other.
"They're messing around in things they have no business messing around in," she says.
State Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin), the sponsor of the state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and civil unions, insists his amendment is needed to protect the interests of the citizens of this state.
"If the [state] Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage from the bench, that is a mandate to other units of government, to the taxpayers and private businesses, that they must provide health care at cost" for same-sex spouses.
But Bill Kraus, co-chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin and former press secretary to Gov. Dreyfus, sees the gay marriage amendment and the ban on stem-cell research as contrary to the party's ideals. "I am appalled by it," he says. "That is not the Republican Party that I grew up with."
Dreyfus too sees the party's pandering to social conservatives as ill-advised. "The Republican Party now has to look at its alignment...with the conservative Christian right, [and] find out it is leading [the party] down a path it really doesn't want to go."
The story of how these social issues have come to play a dominant role in American politics begins in the 1930s. That is when the federal government, under the guidance of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, championed social welfare programs to alleviate the suffering of Americans wrought by the Great Depression. Since these New Deal-era reforms, people have increasingly turned to governments to solve problems.
"Social issues are taking over in this country," says Dreyfus, "because the relationship of people to their government obviously has changed."
Today, for some social conservatives, whether women are allowed to have abortions and whether gay people can marry or form civil unions are issues that the government must solve. It is ironic that the Republican Party's stance on these social issues, which irks modern Democrats, is in fact rooted in the progressive ideology of the New Deal.
While the New Deal Democrats urged government to be involved in social issues, it was the next generation of Democrats that actually brought these issues into the political arena.
Byron Shafer, a professor of political science at the UW-Madison, explains that before the 1960s, government focused mainly on the economics of social welfare. People generally liked Social Security and Medicare, and as long as that was the substance of politics, Democrats generally had the more popular positions on those issues.
In the 1960s, the Democratic Party began taking the liberal position on new cultural and social issues, like advocating for reproductive choice and a greater separation between church and state. This proved costly. Shafer says there were "a whole lot of economically liberal but culturally and socially conservative Democrats. If social welfare is the issue, they're Democrats forever. [But] if you're gonna kick religion out of the schools, they're Republican in a minute."
Today, the Republican Party in Wisconsin and at the national level has built itself a base that has put it in control of politics. It has done this in part by attracting historically Democratic voters to the party by promoting its conservative stance on social issues, or what are sometimes called family values.
But Republicans like Kraus feel the party is "playing to what it perceives as the base that gives it the majority, and that base is the right to life, guns, [and] the religious conservatives. Republicans are not stupid. They're doing this because that's where the votes are. These people vote, and they vote consistently."
Still, Kraus thinks this approach could backfire, if it drives moderates away. "They've taken over the party," he says of these conservatives. "They didn't become Republicans. They subsumed Republicans."
There is another factor that has helped put social conservatives at the forefront of the Republican Party. A series of reforms after Watergate altered the structure of both political parties, making them more participatory.
Before these reforms, political elites dominated political party leadership, and their interest in politics was to reap the benefits of holding political power. Now that the political parties have become more accessible, issue-driven party activists have much greater sway.
And those issues tend to be social issues.
Shafer remembers a time when people became active in political parties because they wanted to fight poverty or deregulate business. Now, he says, "it's those cultural and social issues that bring 'em in."
On both sides of the aisle, the politics have become more personal. People become involved in party politics because they believe in a woman's right to choose, or a fetus' right to life, not because they have ideas about economic policy.
But the passionate stances that both parties have taken on social issues have turned the political world on its head. Before abortion became a hot-button political issue, one could safely assume that the Democrats had a strong base of Catholic support, and the Republicans enjoyed the backing of college-educated, middle-class women.
Now that social issues dominate our politics, a given demographic's allegiance to a political party has become less clear. The Democrat's liberal stance on abortion rights alienated socially conservative Democrats, specifically Catholics. And while the Republicans have not yet seen the same kind of mass exodus from the party that the Democrats experienced, the Republicans' ascension as the party of social conservatives has strained individuals' loyalty to the party.
"You've got a lot of college-educated, wealthier pro-choice Republicans out there, and they're [in] the pro-life party," says Shafer. "It's a stress."
Just ask Ann Peckham, the pro-choice Republican who served as a delegate at GOP conventions throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s. After years of fighting what has turned out to be a losing battle to make the party more moderate on reproductive-health issues, Peckham now considers herself a party "dropout."
But she remains a loyal Republican, which annoys many of the people she deals with as a pro-choice advocate. She considers herself a Republican partly because she believes in the Republican bedrock of personal responsibility as opposed to what she calls the Democrats' preference for a welfare state.
"I have been a Republican for so long that it may just be a habit," admits Peckham, 81. "But it's a good habit, and I'm glad I don't have to apologize for a bunch of the Democrats that I see on television."
Likewise, the 80-year-old Kraus, after decades of being a guiding force in the state GOP, still considers himself a staunch Republican but is disaffiliated from the Republican Party. "It's not worth slugging it out to be a party person," he says.
As the Republican Party's old guard recedes into the background, will the voice of social moderation and the belief that personal responsibility trumps legislating morality disappear as well?
Steven Schwerbel graduated from UW-Madison in the spring, after majoring in history, political science and international relations. A relatively new member of the state Republican Party, he considers himself a neoconservative on foreign policy. He supports the war in Iraq, seeing it as an important facet of the broader war on terror. He favors tax cuts and believes in the inherent virtue of the free-market economy. But Schwerbel is also pro-choice, favors stem-cell research, and opposes an amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions.
While working for the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign, Schwerbel was alarmed to find that there was a group of campaign workers, mostly older women, who supported Bush solely because of his position on abortion. According to Schwerbel, the women did not care about the war in Iraq, or taxes; they simply supported Bush because he was the pro-life candidate.
At the national level, where foreign policy dominates politics, Schwerbel does not doubt his support for Republicans. Here in Wisconsin, where politics is confined to domestic policy, he has more problems with the party.
Schwerbel says when gubernatorial candidate Green and his former primary opponent Scott Walker spoke to the College Republicans, they emphasized social issues. "The gay marriage ban [has] been a really big talking point lately, as well as, to a lesser extent, cloning and stem-cell research. That's always disappointed me, and it leaves me cold."
While he is currently loyal to the party that echoes his convictions about foreign and fiscal policy, Schwerbel can envision a day when he might leave the party behind. "If the religious right becomes the Republican Party, which I don't think they've become right now," he says, "then it's very possible that I could vote Democrat."
For Dreyfus, abandoning the Republican Party to become a Democrat is simply inconceivable. "I just don't have anywhere to go," says the former governor, who just turned 80. Still, he's not happy where he is.
"The party's going down the wrong channel," he says. "Right now, they're winning, and it looks good." But he foresees a time when the party's allegiance with social conservatives and the religious right could work to its detriment. "Life is a pendulum."
Without the help of the social moderates like himself, Dreyfus warns that the party might find itself no longer in power. "If [the socially conservative Republicans] kick all of those so-called RINOs out, they're gonna wind up a minority party."