Wisconsin Republicans divided in response to Donald Trump

Gov. Scott Walker signaled Monday he would support Donald Trump if Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination.

As Donald Trump barrels toward the GOP presidential nomination, Wisconsin’s top Republican officials are divided over whether to support him if he succeeds and represents the party in the general election.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh declined to rule out a future break with his party’s presidential front-runner, a shift from his past statements that he would back whoever the GOP nominates.

“It’s depressing to see how this is devolving,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker made clear that he would prefer Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas over the New York real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity. But the former presidential candidate steered clear of joining the emerging “#nevertrump” movement fanned by conservative activists on social media.

“I signed a pledge and I’m a person of my word,” Walker said. “I wasn’t going to run against someone else and I wasn’t going to support someone other than the nominee.”

Walker last fall dropped his presidential bid and called on others in the huge field to do the same in an effort for an alternative to Trump to emerge.

Two of the top three Republicans in the state Assembly — Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna and Joint Finance Committee co-chairman John Nygren of Marinette, both of whom support Rubio — say they won’t support Trump and would consider voting for a conservative third-party candidate in the general election if he’s the nominee.

“This is a defining moment for our party and our country,” Steineke said. “He would forever ruin the Republican brand.”

In a meeting with the Racine Journal Times editorial board, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester didn’t rule out supporting Trump but questioned his conservative credentials.

“I know quite a few conservatives who have said, ‘I’m not going to vote for somebody who isn’t a conservative.’ Because on certain things, I’m not sure he is,” Vos, a Rubio supporter, said of Trump. Nevertheless, he said, “My assumption is I will support the Republican nominee, whoever it is.”

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chairwoman of the Joint Finance Committee, said she’ll support whoever the nominee is, including Trump, to avoid a situation like 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton’s election benefited from the third-party candidacy of Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

Darling hasn’t endorsed a candidate, but is disappointed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is out of the race.

“People are questioning who Donald Trump really is and what he really stands for,” Darling said, but she added supporting a third-party candidate “would be a huge mistake. We know what happened with Perot.”

No Wisconsin lawmakers so far have endorsed Trump, though he leads the Republican field in the state with 30 percent support, according to the latest Marquette Law School Poll.

Poll director Charles Franklin said he doesn’t recall ever seeing a phenomenon where party leaders said they wouldn’t support the frontrunner for their party’s nomination.

“They are in a rather last-minute panic about this,” Franklin said.

That’s partly driven by the effect Trump could have on down-ballot contests in November, a concern Vos cited while discussing a Trump nomination. In a hypothetical head-to-head match-up with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Trump loses by 11 points in Wisconsin, the Marquette poll found. In a Rubio-Clinton match-up it’s Clinton 44-43.

“Those 10 points matter,” Franklin said.

Johnson — who’s locked in a tough re-election battle in which he faces the prospect of sharing a GOP ticket with the controversial Trump — told WTMJ radio he’s “praying” for leaders who won’t be divisive. Without naming Trump, Johnson said he’s demoralized by the current state of the presidential race.

Trump was asked Sunday about the support he has received from David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Pressed three times in a CNN interview on whether he would distance himself from Duke or the Klan, Trump declined to do so. He later said he does disavow Duke and blamed the exchange on a faulty earpiece.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., became the first Senate Republican to publicly split with Trump late Sunday, posting to Facebook that he will not support Trump for president.

Asked by radio host Charlie Sykes in Monday’s interview if he’ll do the same, Johnson said: “Let’s see how the process plays out.”

“I don’t like demagoguery on any side of the political spectrum, and we have it across the political spectrum,” Johnson said.

The possibility of GOP U.S. senators publicly breaking en masse from Trump was floated publicly over the weekend in a widely circulated report by The New York Times. It reported Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has laid out a plan behind closed doors for lawmakers to break explicitly with Trump in a general election, should he claim the Republican nomination.

McConnell reportedly said of Trump: “We’ll drop him like a hot rock” and even assured Republican senators they could air ads attacking Trump in order to distance themselves, the Times reported.

Conservatives in Wisconsin are also contemplating a full-on assault of Trump’s thin conservative record and policy positions, according to Republican strategist Brian Fraley.

“If Wisconsin matters there will be a strong anti-Trump effort here because Wisconsin conservatives are more organized and more educated on the importance of free market economics and liberty,” Fraley said, adding that the opposition might emerge even if Trump locks up the nomination before the April 5 primary.

The possibility of Trump being the GOP nominee has grown in recent weeks as he racked up primary and caucus wins in the early presidential states of New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Tuesday’s multiple contests, mostly in Southern states, are not expected to serve as a breaker for the Trump surge.

Congressman Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, one of the first GOP office-holders to publicly denounce Trump, has heightened his social media criticism of Trump in the wake of his most recent comments.

“For the record, condemning the KKK isn’t something you should have to think twice about. #nevertrump” Ribble posted to his Twitter account late Sunday.

The other four Republicans in the Congressional caucus — Speaker Paul Ryan, Sean Duffy, Glenn Grothman and Jim Sensenbrenner — didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald also didn’t respond.

Steineke, the Assembly majority leader who has been bashing Trump publicly on Twitter for weeks, said one reason more Republicans aren’t coming out against Trump is because they worry popular opposition to elected officials will cause their criticism of Trump to backfire. Franklin, the poll director, said another possibility is Republicans are worried about alienating a large swath of their own voters.

Asked whether Trump represents the Republican Party he sought to represent last year, Walker said “a number of his views and positions are different than mine.”

“Even if we don’t agree with every choice that certain candidates make or articulate, then the bottom line is you have to respect the voters and the process,” Walker said.

— The Racine Journal Times contributed to this report.

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Contact reporter Matthew DeFour at mdefour@madison.com or 608-252-6144. Contact reporter Mark Sommerhauser at msommerhauser@madison.com or 608-252-6122.

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