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Wisconsin GOP event features state's Republican leaders leaders — but not Trump

Shawn Johnson Wisconsin Public Radio U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan was booed and heckled on Saturday by supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a GOP campaign rally in Ryan's congressional district - an event that was origi...

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Shawn Johnson

Wisconsin Public Radio


U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan was booed and heckled on Saturday by supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a GOP campaign rally in Ryan’s congressional district - an event that was originally supposed to feature Trump himself. 

The awkward confrontation at the annual 1st Congressional District Republican Party of Wisconsin Fall Fest in Elkhorn underscored the precarious choice facing Republicans following the release of a 2005 recording that featured Trump bragging in vulgar terms about groping women.  Trump supporters in Elkhorn blamed Ryan for not backing Trump more forcefully even as Republicans elsewhere called on Ryan to rescind his endorsement of the GOP nominee altogether. 

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While Ryan had previously issued a statement saying he was "sickened" by the Trump recording, he only alluded to it during his speech. 

"Let me just start off by saying there is a bit of an elephant in the room, and it is a troubling situation," Ryan said.  "But that is not what we’re here to talk about today." 

Ryan and most other Wisconsin Republicans tried to talk about anything but Trump, though it was clear early on that Trump supporters weren't happy with the sidestepping.  They booed any mention of Ryan, with one heckler even getting into a shouting match with U.S. House Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. 

"Every year people come to the Fall Fest to say their appreciation and their support for Paul," Sensenbrenner said. 

"Not no more!" shouted a heckler to Sensenbrenner.  "I’m for Donald Trump!" 

"Why don’t you listen to what I have to say rather than interrupting me?" Sensenbrenner shot back.  "Clean up your act," he added later as the outbursts continued. 

But hecklers saved some of their sharpest insults for Ryan, shouting at the Janesville native as he finished his speech. 

"Shame on you!" shouted one man who was close to Ryan in the crowd. 

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"We want Trump!" shouted others as Ryan quickly left the stage. 

Trump’s vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was also scheduled to speak at Saturday’s rally.  He canceled his appearance Saturday morning. 

Most Wisconsin Republicans Don’t Mention Trump 

Just a few months ago at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Sensenbrenner was pleading with Republicans to embrace Trump for the sake of other races down the ballot.  Sensenbrenner still warned against the dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but he declined to mention Trump by name on Saturday. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson took a similar approach, spending most of his time attacking his Democratic opponent Russ Feingold while only alluding to the race for the White House. 

"We have to make sure the 10 electoral votes of Wisconsin do not get turned over to Hillary Clinton," Johnson said. 

Gov. Scott Walker used his speech to promote his record at the state level and urge support for Republicans other than Trump, including candidates for the state Legislature.  It was a far cry from Walker’s July speech at the RNC when he wholeheartedly endorsed Trump and promoted him as an outsider who would shake up Washington. 

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos also made no mention of Trump in his remarks.  Less than two weeks ago, Vos told a Madison audience that he was proud to support Trump, contending at the time that Trump’s candidacy would help Republican candidates for the Legislature. 

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The only Wisconsin Republican to specifically mention Trump was Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, who both criticized the GOP presidential nominee while at the same time promising to support him in November.  Schimel was also heckled by Trump supporters in the process. 

"I know that Donald Trump has said some things that are bad," Schimel said.  "I’m a father of two daughters.  My daughters look up to me.  And I don’t like hearing anyone talk that way about women." 

One man shouted at Schimel, "It was 12 years ago, get over it!" 

The attorney general quickly pivoted. 

"But Donald Trump will appoint judges who will defend our Constitution and respect our Constitution," Schimel said to cheers. 

Trump Backers Say Controversy Overblown 

In interviews around the Walworth County Fairgrounds where this rally was hosted, Trump supporters said they were standing by their candidate even as Republicans in other states pull their endorsements. 

"This was a mildly vulgar comment," said longtime conservative activist Orville Seymer of Franklin.  "I used to work in the construction industry.  You want to hear some vulgar comments, go hang around a construction site for a while.  Obviously, those guys aren’t running for president of the United States, but still, I don’t think it’s all that serious."

Seymer nonetheless said Trump "clearly shouldn’t have said it." 

Trump supporter Jeanne Kuber, of Fontana, also said Trump was wrong to say what he did but said the response was overblown. 

"It doesn’t change my mind about Donald Trump," Kuber said.  "I’m not offended as a woman by what he said.  And I don’t take it as a slight to women what he said.  It was just locker room talk." 

Kuber said she was disappointed in Ryan, saying she felt he had uninvited Trump to the event in Elkhorn. 

Trump supporter Mary Rhame, who was visiting from Minnesota, said she wished Trump and Pence would have kept their commitments to speak at Fall Fest. 

"Because this is like they’re running," Rhame said, who nevertheless called the recording "very offensive."  Rhame said she believed Trump had changed since the recording was made in 2005.  Like other Trump backers, she reserved most of her criticism Saturday for Ryan. 

"Paul Ryan, I think has a weak character," Rhame said.  "I think we’ve had enough of weak characters." 

Trump himself weighed in on Twitter. 

"Thank you to all my supporters in Wisconsin," Trump wrote hours after the rally.  "I heard that the crowd and enthusiasm was unreal." 

Ryan didn't take questions after Saturday’s event.

More WPR news is available on KUWS-FM 91.3 or wpr.org.

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