T.Wall’s Tales from the Trail, Part 2: Lincoln Day Dinner Circuit
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Candidates for the Republican Party offices normally participate in a ritual called the Lincoln Day Dinner Circuit. What is the circuit? Most county Republican parties (roughly 60 or so out of 72 counties) hold a dinner (or lunch) in which anywhere from 20 to 350 people show up and meet the candidates. This year, we saw between 30% and 50% more people attend, which is a good indication of the kind of tidal wave that is coming in November. People are getting involved.

This year, between 10 and 25 candidates for various offices attended the dinners. Each would speak for three to five minutes as a way of introducing themselves to the audience, which was made up of primary core conservatives.

At first, I thought this process was nuts, given the grueling schedule; candidates for statewide offices were attending up to 10 of these dinners in a single weekend; I remember doing five dinners on one particular Saturday. (And yet, I still managed to lose eight pounds!) The downside is that candidates were burning through their resources and time on the Circuit instead of engaging the greater voting population.

But as I wrapped up the four-month long marathon, I realized there was real value to the process; in fact, the process was irreplaceable. The Lincoln Day Dinner circuit serves a number of important functions; first, it’s where you first in meet your core constituency, find volunteers, and refine your message. Most importantly, the process gave me an opportunity to practice my speaking skills before I was to take on Feingold. And the occasional forum against David Westlake allowed me to practice my debating skills in a relatively risk-free manner, without the scrutiny of the media watching.

At the end of the Circuit’s four months, candidates then had a total of eight months of practice under their belt, speaking, greeting, and debating. (Unfortunately for Ron Johnson, he chose to miss out on this critical training exercise.) At the end of this long process, I was ready! Every candidate I observed had improved as well, and we had become somewhat of an alternative family, supporting each other when times got tough.

The Lincoln Day Dinner circuit also serves one other critically important purpose; to vet the candidates and weed out those who either can’t take it or simply don’t want to invest the time to meet the voters. If the candidate won’t take the time to meet the voters during the campaign, they’re certainly not going to take the time after they’re elected.

The circuit also allows the core constituency to ferret out which candidates are going to be the hardest working and have the stamina to survive the onslaught that the other party and media will throw at them. Case in point: Scott Walker. That guy is the hardest working candidate I have ever seen. Not only did he attend more dinners than any other candidate, but he was making stops in between at Menard’s, the local mall, and the Universities to shake even more hands. I once saw him finish breakfast at Perkins one day and then go around the table by table introducing himself. He even motivated me to follow him around the restaurant! Let me tell you, that’s not easy, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you become. Skipping this process would be a mistake for a first-time candidate.

Candidates that only showed up to a handful of Lincoln Day Dinners clearly sent a message to the other candidates and to their fellow party members that they weren’t willing to work as hard and, frankly, that they don’t care as much about the voters. This message was made loud and clear to me, so much so that I was motivated to charter a small Wisconsin Aviation plane on a few occasions so that I could attend five dinners in a day instead of three, like other candidates.

Yes, admittedly, I was a little dismayed when I would fly up to a remote county only to be limited to five minutes speaking time! But they always appreciated the extra effort. In fact, frustrated at the limited time the candidates would receive to speak, I took action at one caucus event. It was for the Second Congressional District meeting, and it was being held in my own building at City Center West, so I selfishly invoked “landlord’s privilege” and took an extra couple minutes to speak! I think that was a first, and the audience did enjoy a good laugh.

There’s one thing I did learn, keeping it light and humorous was extremely important to maintain the morale of the candidates. After many dinners, I finally figured out a line that the audience would remember — that even though Russ Feingold was my tenant, with a lease, and therefore I couldn’t evict him from my building, the voters could evict him from the Senate in November! Finding lines like that to help you stand out among the 20 to 30 other candidates proved to be important. It was no different than brand marketing a product, except you’re the product!

As you can imagine, after a couple dozen of these Lincoln Day dinners, and after hearing each others’ speeches so many times, the candidates needed something to make the process more interesting. Eventually, a few candidates created a game they would play just to keep the Circuit entertaining. The candidates would challenge each other by coming up with an odd ball word that another candidate would have to include in his or her speech, like “giraffe.” Amazingly, the candidates time and time again would manage to work their word into speeches to avoid losing the challenge, resulting in an uneasy moment in which only the other candidates were laughing while the general audience tried to figure out what was so funny. This too served a purpose, however, which was to keep the candidates fresh and provide practice of thinking quickly on your feet.

For more of Terrence Wall’s “Tales from the Trail,” check back next week at “Up Against the Wall,” exclusively on IBMadison.com.