MILWAUKEE — State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, earned a stamp of approval and a major resource boost from the Republican Party of Wisconsin at its state convention on Saturday.
Activists and party members voted to endorse Vukmir over Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson in the U.S. Senate primary, giving her access to party resources like field offices and donor lists. Vukmir, who needed to earn 60 percent of members' votes to win the endorsement, got 73 percent.
Vukmir will face Nicholson, who earned 27 percent of the vote, on the ballot on August 14, with the winner challenging Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin on Nov. 6. Wisconsin's open primary system does not require voters to register as members of a party to vote in that party's primary.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told reporters before the endorsement vote that he is hopeful, if it becomes clear after the convention that one of the two candidates is significantly weaker, he or she will drop out of the race.
Johnson urged both Nicholson and Vukmir to focus on running a general election campaign against Baldwin rather than tearing each other down throughout the primary.
"Please do nothing to harm the other candidate," Johnson implored the pair.
Nicholson has waged a campaign as an outsider, pegging Vukmir as a political insider. Vukmir has touted her record and experience and cast doubts on Nicholson's background. Nicholson was elected president of the College Democrats of America in 1999, but said he underwent a political conversion after serving as a Marine and starting a family with his wife.
Jessie Nicholson, the candidate's wife and longtime Republican, said Nicholson's political background makes him "the best messenger for our conservative views."
In his speech seeking the party's endorsement, Nicholson took a defiant tone, pledging not to ask for permission or to apologize for his choices. He reiterated his controversial challenge of the "thought processes" of Democrats who serve in the military, arguing they support policies that would undermine the U.S. Constitution they have sworn to defend.
"This is not a game," Nicholson said. "This is about winning a Senate seat. What’s on the docket, who goes to war, who lives, who dies. Does our country prosper or not?"
In her speech, Vukmir pledged to take the "Wisconsin way" to Washington, D.C., touting her background in the state Legislature working alongside Gov. Scott Walker. Walker has not endorsed a candidate. His son, Alex, works on Vukmir's campaign, and his wife, Tonette, has endorsed Vukmir.
"The problem with Washington (is) we don’t have enough fighters," Vukmir said. "We have a number of folks on our side of the aisle who weaken just at the thought of a tough fight … but here in Wisconsin we know true conservatism and we know what it looks like."
In nomination speeches backing Vukmir, both Rachel Campos-Duffy and former Republican National Committee chairman and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus framed Vukmir as a fighter who will work with Johnson and President Donald Trump to advance a conservative agenda.
Campos-Duffy also presented Vukmir as a foil for Baldwin.
"There is a war on women, and that war is on conservative women who dare to think for themselves, and that is exactly why we need a strong woman like Leah, who can stand up to the hysterical, pink hat, mean girl resistance," Campos-Duffy said.
Johnson said he would be "happy to serve" with either candidate.
The focus for both, he said, should be on "making sure Tammy Baldwin is a one-term senator."
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