Kleefisch at RNC 2016

Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch said family and friend support helped her decide to run for statewide office.

CLEVELAND — Donald Trump's selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate has given Wisconsin Republicans a reason to get excited about the top of their ticket. 

"Republicans are unified," Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch told the Wisconsin delegation at its Tuesday morning breakfast. "We’re unified all across the bottom of the ticket and this week, I think we will prove not only to this country, but the world, and ourselves, that we’re unified all across the top, too."

Kleefisch, much like House Speaker Paul Ryan in his Monday speech to the delegation, did not mention Trump by name in her address.

The focus on Pence from Kleefisch and other party leaders allows them to take a careful approach with a controversial candidate, said University of Wisconsin-Madison political science and journalism professor Mike Wagner.

"It lets them be good Republican party team members without having to drink Trump Kool-Aid," Wagner said. "They want their party to be successful, they don’t like Hillary Clinton, they want to maintain the Republican Party’s strength in governorships, the state legislative majority, the House and Senate majority — but they don’t trust Trump as a true conservative. Mike Pence is a true conservative."

Pence's legislative and gubernatorial records offer bona fides that will appeal to both economic and social conservatives — a record Trump doesn't have, Wagner said.

But Kleefisch said the absence of Trump's name from her speech was nothing to read into.

"I don’t think so, no, because the entire week is going to be about the Trump-Pence ticket," Kleefisch told reporters when asked whether the dearth of Trump mentions bore significance. "I think in this room in particular you had a lot of excitement about Pence on the ticket."

Pence spoke at the state GOP convention a few years ago, she said, adding that Wisconsin Republicans are excited to see a Midwesterner on the ballot.

"When you look at Mike Pence and his leadership, you see a lot of similarities between Indiana and Wisconsin," Kleefisch said, noting that the two states are in frequent competition to outpace each other in the rate of manufacturing jobs per capita. "But one of the reasons we do that is because Indiana has been an economic development machine. We want America to be an economic development machine, and I think from both a business and policy perspective it’s kind of what this ticket represents."

In her remarks to delegates, Kleefisch zeroed in on state legislative races, reminding the party faithful there are races beyond the presidential and federal level that require work and focus. 

The lieutenant governor, serving her second term with Gov. Scott Walker, applauded individual lawmakers for their work in their districts and on the campaign trail. 

While Republican candidates try to assess and manage the potential effects of a Trump candidacy on their races, Kleefisch suggested down-ticket races could be the ones to influence the top of the ballot instead.

"These are the men and women who I honestly believe will help the top of the ticket," she said. "Now, normally, we talk about the top of the ticket having these gigantic coattails and it’s always one way. I think we’re going to have a strong ticket all the way up and all the way down — because these people care so deeply. They pour their hearts and they pour their souls into service of their state."

Different party leaders have different takes on what Trump's candidacy means for down-ballot races.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, first encouraged Republicans to back Trump earlier this summer, arguing "the same mechanism" works to get presidential, federal and state-level candidates elected. 

Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Monday he's seen some voters start to draw a line between Trump and the Republican Party, and he's confident about the prospects of Republican candidates in some of the state's most competitive districts.

Typically, the candidate at the top of the ticket has the strongest effect on other races, Wagner said. However, he said, there's a good chance this election will see more instances of people voting in races lower on the ballot while leaving the top field blank than most. 

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However, Wagner said, Trump's candidacy makes it more difficult for down-ballot candidates to get their message out because one of the first questions they're likely to face from voters is where they stand on their presidential nominee.

"It's just the kind of thing where he is so good at owning the media cycle that he’s knocking Republicans who could use a cycle out of a chance to communicate to voters," Wagner said.

Both Vos and Fitzgerald are delegates at the convention. Kleefisch was initially slated to be a delegate, but later withdrew, citing a scheduling conflict.

She said Tuesday that decision had nothing to do with Trump. She is scheduled to attend a breakfast at the Beloit Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, and said she doesn't think "there's any shame" in returning from Cleveland to spend time with constituents in Wisconsin.

Kleefisch hedged when asked whether Trump is her kind of conservative — a nod to Ryan, who said Monday that while the presumptive nominee is not his kind of conservative, the party must back him. 

Trump might not be as conservative as some Wisconsin Republicans would like on fiscal policy, Kleefisch said, but she added she thinks Pence can play an effective "COO" to Trump's "chairman of the board." 

Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Brandon Weathersby quipped that RNC has come to stand for "Republicans 'n' Chaos" this week, referring to a brief procedural disruption on the floor Monday night.

"Republicans are so desperate for party unity that they're willing to hold their nose while their party nominates the most extreme ticket in a generation," Weathersby said. "Wisconsin deserves better than the divisive policies and 'me-first' economic proposals of the Trump and Pence ticket."

Kleefisch, when asked if she's excited about Trump, said she is "excited about winning the White House back."

"And I think regardless of who came out of the convention, we were going to end up supporting that person whether it was a man or a woman, whether it was a businessman or a politician," she said. "We’re excited about the Trump-Pence ticket because the Trump-Pence ticket is going to beat the Clinton and whoever else ticket."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.