MILWAUKEE — In her Wisconsin debut as a Donald Trump surrogate, Sarah Palin was met with tepid applause and stone-faced silence Friday night at a Milwaukee County Republican gathering.
In contrast, the 750 Republicans at American Serb Hall cheered enthusiastically for Sen. Ted Cruz, who was introduced by Gov. Scott Walker and talk radio host Vicki McKenna.
The contrasting receptions illustrated why the Texas senator has surged past the real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity in the latest polls, especially in southeastern Wisconsin.
Palin opened with a call for unity among the candidates in supporting former Green Bay Packer offensive lineman Jerry Kramer’s induction into the NFL hall of fame, a joke that mostly fell flat. Her free-flowing, seemingly stream-of-consciousness speech from prepared notes criticized crony capitalists on Wall Street for profiting from open borders, free trade and military intervention while regular people suffer.
“The establishment’s interest runs counter to the interests of the people,” Palin said. “Common sense is an endangered species in Washington.”
Palin said Trump is the only candidate who creates jobs, balances budgets, builds “big things” and “understands this reality.”
After Palin, McKenna, who Trump hung up on during an intense interview earlier in the week, fired up the crowd by slamming Trump’s criticisms of Walker and the Wisconsin economy.
“Governor Walker is the single most substantive governor in the history of this state,” McKenna said. “I am tired of people coming into my state and telling me how bad it is.”
Walker then introduced Cruz as a candidate who would bring to Washington the same “common sense conservative leadership” that Walker brought to Wisconsin.
Palin was the second featured speaker after Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who had a small contingent of supporters in the crowd and was introduced by former Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Kasich noted that recent polls have shown 38 percent of voters in the state don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
“I guess that’s what happens when you’re positive all the time and don’t enter a demolition derby,” Kasich said.
Palin is also scheduled to join Trump at town hall events in Racine and Rothschild on Saturday. Palin will also participate in a solo meet-and-greet event in Marathon City on Sunday afternoon.
The former Alaska governor’s past visits to Wisconsin include a 2013 book signing at a Wausau Wal-Mart and a 2011 tax day rally in Madison, where she defended Walker’s controversial changes to public sector collective bargaining.
“Your governor did the right thing, and you won,” Palin said in 2011. “Your beautiful state won.”
This week, after Walker endorsed Cruz, Trump laid into Walker for the performance of Wisconsin’s economy, telling hundreds of supporters in Janesville “he’s not doing a great job.”
Milwaukee County has become Cruz country as conservative talk radio has aligned against the real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity and behind the first-term senator. The latest Marquette Law School Poll found Cruz leading Trump 53-15 in Milwaukee County. Kasich came in second with 22 percent support.
Attendees at Friday night’s event said the vast majority of the crowd were Cruz supporters, which was borne out by the response to the speakers.
Among the Cruz supporters was Christina Bauman, 53, a registered nurse from Waukesha who said Republicans in Wisconsin are supporting Cruz because “we are ground zero for conservatism.”
“People are just fed up,” Bauman said. “We want results.”
Warren Matson, 57, a Realtor from West Allis, said he is undecided, but has been leaning toward Trump after Ben Carson dropped out of the race. However, Trump’s gaffes over the past week, such as reversing a statement that women who receive abortions should be punished if abortion were to become illegal, have raised doubts about Trump. Matson’s wife, Maggie, is supporting Cruz.
“We may need marriage counseling after this if I vote for Trump, and I almost want to do it,” Matson said, adding the way the Republican establishment has moved to stop Trump illustrates how “he isn’t beholden to anyone.”
Michael Willner, a cable CEO from New York, traveled to Wisconsin Friday to volunteer for Kasich.
“He has a fabulous record,” Willner said. “He really was the Republican architect of the last balanced budget this country has had.”
His assessment for why Kasich hasn’t caught fire in Wisconsin, a purple state, is because it is less moderate than states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania and more divided between conservatives and liberals.
Thomas Kroon, 50, a truck driver from Oak Creek, said he supported Walker for president, then Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and now Cruz. He said the antipathy toward Trump among many Wisconsin voters is driven by how he distorted Walker’s record during last August’s Republican debate.
“There’s nothing about Trump that’s conservative,” Kroon said.
Kroon also knocked Kasich for taking federal money as part of a Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, something Walker has resisted.
“Kasich wants to keep everything the way it is,” Kroon said. “We need bold changes at this point.”