The town of Ripon, Wisconsin, is called the Birthplace of the Republican Party.
In 1854, town leaders gathered to form a political movement in response to the threat of spreading slavery.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential primary here – in the middle of an election process that is threatening to tear the modern Republican Party apart — Ripon voters are well aware of the irony.
The party began, according to docent Brian Reilly, when a man named Alvan Bovay called a public meeting in Ripon’s Little White Schoolhouse to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Bill.
The federal legislation threatened to extend slavery into new territories. Bovay, a member of the Whig Party, felt he had to do something drastic to stop it.
“Bovay thought his Whig Party was dying,” Reilly says. “He felt a new party was needed to expressly oppose slavery.”
The fifty men, three women and one child at that meeting came from different political backgrounds. But soon, they were unified. On a chalkboard in the center of the room, a quote by Bovay sums up the way the party was born:
We went into the little meeting held in a schoolhouse, Whigs Free-Soilers and Democrats. We came out of it as Republicans and we were the first Republicans in the union.
Jackson, Michigan, also claims it was home to the first meeting of Republicans in the United States, in July of 1854. But Reilly insists that meeting was statewide. Ripon’s was the first local meeting. “To say there’s any one root for a movement like this on a national level is to try to pinpoint the origin of a storm,” he says.
In modern times, the party is more fractured. Wisconsin has become a battleground for a movement to stop Donald Trump’s path to the Republican nomination in July.
Republican-backed SuperPACs are spending millions of dollars on TV ads attacking their own frontrunner. They appear to be working. One recent statewide polls show Trump trailing Ted Cruz by ten points.
Trump supporters are fighting back. The Great America PAC launched an ad campaign of its own in Wisconsin, aimed at shoring up support with women and mothers.
Last night, Trump told a Fox News town hall in Milwaukee that his tone would become more presidential if his opponents drop out. And he’s argued for months that he’s bringing the party together, not ripping it apart. “I’m bringing a lot of people in who are Democrats who are Independents,” Trump said during a CNN debate in February. “Look at any of the elections, every single election, it’s been record setting.”
In fact, Wisconsin election officials are preparing for heavy turnout tomorrow. But this fight inside the party is hard to swallow for voters like Annette Klein, who serves on the Ripon nonpartisan City Council. She’s up for re-election April 5.
“Growing up, I remember thinking I have to be a Republican because this is where I was born,” says Klein, who retired from the city’s public works department after 22 years. “It makes you really proud to think this is where you’re from and this is where the Republican Party started.”
But she’s not as proud of her party this year, Klein adds. “It’s kind of disheartening. I’m afraid I’m having a real hard time this year deciding what’s best.”
She’d rather vote for John Kasich, but on Tuesday she’ll put a check next to Ted Cruz’s name on the ballot. Klein says she buys into the anti-Trump movement’s argument that Cruz is the only one who can beat the billionaire businessman in Wisconsin.
“I don’t like the way the Republican Party has gone as of recent,” she says. “I’d like to go back to the past.”
And not necessarily back to 1854. Klein liked the days of Ronald Regan just fine.
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