ADAMS, Wis. — A couple of hours after a small band of conservative House members engineered the ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a Wisconsin legislator from a rural county in the heart of this battleground state addressed his fellow Republicans at a Lincoln Day dinner — and was promptly interrupted by a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln.
The presidential impersonator, adorned in a stovepipe hat and long black coat, accused him of not being conservative enough.
Scott Krug, a seven-term state lawmaker who nearly always votes with his party but has argued for compromise with the state’s Democratic governor on election policies, shook his head.
Both men serve on the Adams County Board, and Krug chalked up the outburst to their differences over the county budget. He used the moment to remind attendees that Republicans have been on a losing streak in Wisconsin since 2018 and told them they used to succeed because they tolerated differences among party members and kept their disputes behind closed doors.
“We didn’t put on a public display like Congress did today,” he said, standing in a dining hall decorated with mounted deer heads and campaign signs.
“Perception is reality in politics,” he continued. “Perception right now of Republicans in national politics is at a bottom.”
The moment Tuesday night illustrated the internal tensions in the Republican Party that have increasingly spilled into the public, stymied their ability to pass legislation and win elections and, for now at least, paralyzed the House.
The Lincoln impersonator, Josh Pozdolski, said he spoke up during Krug’s speech because he wants his colleague to “vote like a Republican” on the county budget. When asked about McCarthy, Pozdolski said he wants to stay focused on local government.
Most of the speakers stuck to their usual talking points, describing their party as one focused on what they deemed common-sense issues like cutting taxes, reducing energy prices and ensuring voters have to show ID to vote. They accused President Biden and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) of causing inflation to skyrocket and warned that a new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court could redraw political lines that have given Republicans huge majorities in the state legislature. They thanked them for their past work and urged them to keep volunteering in a purple state where races are often won by just a percentage point or two.
The way to win is not through infighting, Krug said in an interview after his speech. He described the effort by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and seven other Republicans to team up with Democrats to remove McCarthy as ridiculous. “It’s a grade-school game,” he said.
Pete Church, the chairman of the Adams County Republican Party, downplayed the interruption of Krug’s speech but said he’s seen a surge of internal disputes among Republicans since the 2020 election. He fears the division will make it harder to keep first-term Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.) in office.
“What they’re doing is making it very difficult on us to keep our congressman,” he said, referring to Gaetz and other Republicans on the far right. “A government shutdown is not the answer. And vacating the speaker is not the answer either, because I’ve seen no plan for them.”
Van Orden, like every Republican in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, voted against McCarthy’s removal. Elected last year with 52 percent of the vote, Van Orden is the Democrats’ top House target in Wisconsin next year. In recent weeks Van Orden has expressed extreme frustration with the GOP splits over the speakership and funding the government. In a recent radio interview, he accused his peers on the far right of “putting our ability to live as a free society in jeopardy for their own personal reasons.”
But at Tuesday’s dinner at Connell’s Cedar Shack, some Republicans said they were pleased with the decision to remove McCarthy. Neal Wisinski, the treasurer of a chapter of the College Republicans, said he was skeptical of McCarthy from the start because he saw him as “wishy-washy.”
“When you’re the speaker, you need to stand for the party’s values,” said Wisinski, 26. “Kevin McCarthy, unfortunately, did not hold the line with the Ukraine funding a lot of the times. And because he didn’t do that, his party turned on him.”
Ken Gulbranson, a retired utility worker who wore a camouflage hat with former president Donald Trump’s name on it in blaze orange, said he considered McCarthy a RINO, or Republican in name only. Gulbranson, 60, sees his ouster as a chance to put in place a more conservative speaker.
“It seems like all Republicans bow down to the Democrats and what they want — except Trump, so that’s what people like Trump for,” he said.
Other attendees were troubled by the move against McCarthy. Steve Nelson, 69, said he didn’t like that Gaetz and his allies had relied mostly on Democratic votes to remove McCarthy.
“I just don’t think that they understand that this is like an ocean liner,” he said. “You can’t do a right turn. You have to do a veer to the right and turn over time. I thought McCarthy kind of had us going in the right direction.”
From the stage, the state Republican Party’s chairman, Brian Schimming, said there wasn’t much he could do about the fight over the speakership, but suggested the dispute offered a warning of the dangers intraparty brawling can bring. Republicans in the state lost recent races for governor, attorney general and state Supreme Court in part because they could not unite after bruising primaries, he said.
“I’m not against primaries,” Schimming said. “But I am against primaries where the Republicans fight Republicans harder than they fight the Democrats.”