COMMENTARY: Wisconsin primary key to candidates’ futures

Here’s the deal.

If Donald Trump wins the Wisconsin presidential primary today, he probably has the Republican nomination locked up. That is because with Wisconsin’s 42 delegates — winner-take-all — and the almost-certainty Trump will win his own New York two weeks later, it is difficult to imagine how he could fail to get the 1,237 delegates needed.

However, if U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., wins in Wisconsin, he gains considerable momentum going into New York, which may result in a contested convention.

Further on Wisconsin, it also is a good Democratic contest this year for a couple of reasons. One is that Wisconsin is a good traditional Democratic state with a lot of union labor in and around Milwaukee. On the other hand, Wisconsin also has a big hard-left element that partly is a remnant of the Progressive (capital P) tradition and partly is the product of the importance of the University of Wisconsin. Rush Limbaugh calls Madison, where UW is, the “Red State of Madison,” and that isn’t far off. Madison will be good for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The Democrats are far less likely than the Republicans to have a contested convention. That is because of the Democrats’ large number of super-delegates, those folks who are office-holders or who are important party figures.

Reid Beveridge

Reid Beveridge

However, unless Trump wins Wisconsin and New York, the Republicans may well go to Cleveland in July with no one having the nomination locked up.

There have been two contested Republican conventions within my memory, one of which I covered for the newspaper for which I then worked. The contested presidential races at conventions were these:

• 1952, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t lock up the Republican nomination that year until the vote on whether to seat the Georgia, Louisiana and Texas delegations, or to be precise, which delegations.

• 1976, when the future president, Ronald Reagan, contested President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination. Ford won and Reagan lost, although this wasn’t entirely certain until the day of the first ballot.

Notwithstanding a lot of confusion this year about definitions, there is a big difference between a “contested” convention and a “brokered” one. “Brokered” has normally meant when the nominee was determined by party leaders, often in a “smoke-filled” room. “Contested” simply means no one enters the convention with a majority of the delegates committed.

Such as the case in 1952. There was quite a divide that year between traditional Republicans and some members of the Eastern Establishment. The party’s congressional wing was backing U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, a former and future Senate majority leader.

The fear of the New York-Boston axis was that Taft was a colorless and considerably less than charismatic figure, though doubtless one of the more effective legislators of that time. Taft was considerably more conservative than the man who would best him — Dwight D. Eisenhower, the five-star general who had been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II.

So, the Republicans reached the Stockyards Amphitheater in Chicago that hot, pre-air-conditioning summer of 1952 without the nomination settled. As may occur this year, the first test was in the Rules Committee, which decides who gets to vote. In that case, the disagreement was over the delegations from Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, where the party elders had selected Taft delegates. The Rules Committee recommended for Ike, and this was upheld on the floor on the first day, sealing the outcome.

Of course, Ike went on to win the election in a landslide, defeating Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson. Stevenson went on to run again in 1956, only to experience defeat even worse than in 1952.

The situation in 1976 was far different. Vice President Ford had succeeded President Nixon upon Nixon’s resignation in the wake of Watergate. Then, Ford pardoned Nixon of all crimes, which would have mostly involved obstruction of justice. This pardon was ferociously unpopular politically at the time.

This resulted in the Democrats sweeping the 1974 mid-term elections, creating huge majorities in the House and Senate. Reagan, then the governor of California, contested Ford in the Republican primaries, winning some and losing some. However, they arrived at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City without either holding a firm majority. There was some heaving and shifting in the ranks in the days running up to the convening. However, in the end, Ford won the nomination on the first ballot.

Wisconsin’s 1976 Democratic presidential primary also was a big deal. The leading candidates were U.S. Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona and former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Both campaigned there heavily. In the end, Carter defeated Udall — somewhat of a surprise outcome, which solidified Carter’s march to the nomination and his eventual victory over President Ford.

Pay attention tonight. Pay attention to both Republicans and Democrats.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reid K. Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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