Ties fraying between GOP, business
Some policies seen as shift from core values
While national observers see a split developing in the traditional alliance between big business and the Republican Party, leaders here say that while some of those ties may be fraying, they continue to hold for now.
"I think it's a critical crossroads for Republicans in Wisconsin and across the country because a lot of people believe the party has lost its way," said Mark Bugher, director of the UW Research Park and a former top aide to Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Bugher, like other Republican business leaders nationally, contend that because of escalating federal budget deficits and the growth of the federal bureaucracy under the Bush administration, the party has forfeited its claim as the voice of fiscal responsibility.
And he says the party's slide toward social conservatism -- by stressing such issues as opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research -- has also alienated more moderate Republican voices.
"I think a lot of people, like myself, who have been in the Republican Party for a long time and who believe in things like stem cell research, are concerned about the hijacking of the party by what can be described as single-interest groups," he said, describing such disputes as part of a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.
"I find it alarming because if we don't take a more holistic approach we could be viewed by non-aligned voters as a kind of knee-jerk party," he says.
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Bugher and other GOP activists and business leaders were reacting to a report in the Wall Street Journal this week that indicated a "potentially historic shift" in the longstanding relationship between business and the Republican Party.
The Journal reported that "some business leaders are drifting away from the party because of the war in Iraq, the growing federal debt, and a conservative agenda they don't share." Others, the paper reported, are breaking with the party over the need for federal action on health care.
Bugher contends that the disconnect may be most acute for Republican candidates at the national level and not quite as pressing for Wisconsin Republicans, a view shared by state GOP director Mark Jefferson and others.
Bugher argues, for example, that the Assembly Republicans' battle with Senate Democrats over proposed tax increases in Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's budget reinforces the image of Republicans as fiscal hawks.
Although some have seen the Republicans as obstructing a final budget deal, Bugher said Doyle's original proposal, which called for about $1.7 billion in new taxes and fee increases, "was pretty hard to swallow.
"In some ways (Assembly Speaker) Mike Huebsch is trying to restore some of the soul of the Republican Party," Bugher said, warning that there could be fallout from conservative voters if Assembly Republicans "knuckle under" to the Democrats on taxes.
Jefferson acknowledged that some party loyalists -- including business leaders -- believe that the party has lost its "brand" because of Bush and the Republicans' free-spending ways.
But he said U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and others in Wisconsin's congressional delegation have done a better job than most in articulating traditional Republican values of fiscal responsibility.
GOP's business ally
There are few signs that the state GOP's traditional big-business ally, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, is abandoning the party.
Officially the group is "a business organization that doesn't worry about the inner workings of the political parties," in the words of WMC spokesman Jim Pugh.
But last year it spent heavily on behalf of Republican Attorney General candidate J.B. Van Hollen and a host of GOP legislative candidates. And, in a move that surprised even some of its members, it went on record opposing Doyle, who has consistently sought to portray himself as a no-tax-increase, pro-business Democrat.
In 2002, the group stayed neutral in the contest between Doyle and Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, in part because of Doyle's promise not to raise state income or sales taxes.
Pugh maintains that his group's stance is that "there should be a bipartisan consensus that what's good for business is good for Wisconsin."
But one longtime WMC observer adds that the group hasn't changed in its overwhelming support for Republicans "and given their leadership and their board of directors, it's not going to."
Joe Murray, political director of the Wisconsin Association of Realtors, said he doesn't believe a political realignment is taking place among Wisconsin business leaders.
While the Realtors have endorsed individual Democratic lawmakers -- and took the unusual step of endorsing Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager in her primary race against Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk last year -- like WMC, it remains a GOP-dominated organization.
Murray said that to the extent that Republicans lost support last year, "it was over the war and the corruption in Congress," and not any change in core beliefs.
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