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MADISON, Wis. — The latest demonstration by right-wing groups against measures to contain the coronavirus went to Wisconsin on Friday, with hundreds of people ignoring social distancing recommendations and crowding together on the steps of the state Capitol to protest the Democratic governor’s stay-home order.
Friday’s event was expected to be among the biggest of the protests that have popped up around the U.S. in recent days. But as with some earlier events, one group will be noticeably absent: the state’s most prominent Republicans.
That included Sen. Ron Johnson, a Trump ally, who was sheltering in place at home in Oshkosh, about 90 miles from Madison.
“I’m neither encouraging nor discouraging them,” said Johnson, 65, whose career was launched by the tea party movement, a protest effort with ties to the current one. He urged anyone who decides to attend the protest to practice good personal hygiene and social distancing.
Johnson’s distance and ambivalence is shared by many Republicans as they warily watch the protests — with their images of gun-toting activists, the occasional Confederate flag, and protesters wearing Trump hats but no face masks.
Six months away from an election, the protests are forcing some Republicans to reckon with a restless right flank advocating an unpopular opinion even as the party seeks to make gains with moderates, women and suburban voters.
In Maine, where moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins is up for reelection, rural residents were behind a protest last Monday in Augusta. Many big-name Republicans stayed away from the rally, which was organized by two arch-conservative lawmakers. Collins did not respond to a request for comment about the protest.
But contenders in the primary in Maine’s 2nd District went out of their way to show support. Former state Sen. Eric Brakey joined the protesters, while Adrienne Bennett, who was the spokeswoman for former Gov. Paul LePage, skipped the event but called on others to join her in a “virtual” protest using social media. Former state Rep. Dale Crafts could not attend but issued a statement of support.
Polls show the sentiment behind these groups is unpopular. A survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found only 12 percent of Americans say the measures in place where they live to prevent the spread of the coronavirus go too far, though Republicans are roughly four times as likely as Democrats to say so — 22 percent to 5 percent. A majority of Americans feel the steps taken by officials in their area are about right.
Still, a network of conservative groups has activated to support the efforts — seizing on the anxiety and distrust that comes with a moment of turmoil. Friday’s rally was promoted by Thomas Leager, a prominent Wisconsin gun rights advocate.
Those who are members of the Facebook group for the event or have advocated for rallying to reopen the state include Matt Batzel, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter for American Majority, a group that helps conservative candidates get elected; Christian Gomez, research project manager at the John Birch Society; and Stephen Moore, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The polls are very clear. That’s why I think Republicans are nervous about this,” said Moore, who is on Trump’s economic task force and has promoted some of the protests provided attendees follow social distancing guidelines. “But these things can change. That’s the point of these protests — to change public opinion.”
The many unknowns of the pandemic — including what the death toll might be if restrictions like stay-home orders were lifted — complicate the political calculations. And Trump himself has positioned himself on both sides of the divide in the party. After issuing guidelines for states to reopen, he tweeted support for protesters who were violating them, calling on them to “LIBERATE” three states with Democratic governors. He empathized with protesters, saying they have “cabin fever” and “want their lives back,” then criticized Georgia’s governor for reopening his state too early.
That’s left most Republicans — particularly those in tough reelection fights this fall — playing it safe by staying away from protests or from being overly vocal about reopening things.
In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis, who is among the GOP senators whose elections could determine if the party keeps control of the Senate, has been repeatedly complimentary of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his decisions.
“People need to wear a mask, they need to avoid going out if they don’t need to,” Tillis said. “That’s the only way that we are ultimately going to beat this virus and get our economy back on sound footing.”
For some Republican candidates and elected officials, the protests have been a way to get attention from a vocal faction of the party, said Wisconsin-based pollster Charles Franklin.
Wisconsin Republicans, who control the state’s Legislature, initially supported Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ approach to fighting the coronavirus, but they broke recently when he extended a stay-at-home order for another month, until May 26, which was the latest in the Midwest at the time and one of the latest in the country.
Last week, Republican legislative leaders asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block the order and force the state Department of Health Services to work with them on a new approach to reopening the state.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd and Associated Press writers David Sharp and Gary Robertson contributed to this report.