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If Wisconsin Republicans endorse a U.S. Senate candidate at their convention next weekend, the winner can boast the backing of the party’s most committed activists.

The endorsement, or lack of one, has been a turning point in the last two races to pick a Republican U.S. Senate nominee in Wisconsin.

In 2010, an endorsement helped clear the field for a then-unknown candidate, Ron Johnson. In 2012, when delegates couldn’t agree on an endorsement and didn’t make one, it set up a brutal, costly primary, and Democrat Tammy Baldwin went on to win the general election.

In 2018, the top GOP candidates, state Sen. Leah Vukmir and businessman Kevin Nicholson, are in position to take their campaigns to the Aug. 14 primary regardless of the endorsement outcome — and Nicholson has signaled he plans to do so. Some Republicans fear a divisive, protracted primary could harm their chances of unseating Baldwin, now seeking her second term.

This year’s state GOP convention is May 11-13 in Milwaukee. Vukmir, R-Brookfield, has publicly voiced confidence that she’ll secure the endorsement there. Vukmir has cast herself as candidate with a record of conservative accomplishments, and the choice of party activists that have helped Republicans prevail in recent Wisconsin elections.

“We all know how important that endorsement is,” Vukmir spokeswoman Jess Ward said. “It indicates the grassroots have selected their candidate to take on and take out Tammy.”

Nicholson, a Delafield businessman and Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, has downplayed the endorsement, suggesting his self-described “outsider” candidacy means it isn’t crucial to his chances. Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody made clear the campaign is looking ahead to the August primary.

“As the establishment insider, Vukmir has staked her entire campaign on the need to win a convention in May,” Moody said. “Our strategy for winning a primary is much different — we are focused on winning the electorate at large in August and then in November.”

At the urging of Johnson, Vukmir and Nicholson signed a “unity pledge” in January saying they would respectfully pursue the endorsement, run a campaign focused on defeating Baldwin, and support the Republican nominee who wins the primary.

Johnson, in an interview last week, said he feels “relatively pleased” with how the pledge has affected the race so far. But Johnson also warned that “the history has not been good for Republican challengers when you have a primary that goes all the way to the end.”

“It gives Tammy Baldwin such a huge advantage if we have a knock-down, drag-out fight all the way to the primary,” Johnson said.

‘Stamp of approval

from our grassroots’

A key question is to what extent the endorsement would give the winning candidate the backing of Wisconsin Republicans’ campaign ground game during the primary phase of the race.

The former chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Mike Tate, said that likely will be up to Walker, as the state’s top Republican, and Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman Brad Courtney.

“That endorsement will mean as much as Scott Walker and Brad Courtney want it to mean,” Tate said.

Walker has said he will stay neutral in the primary and support the Republican victor. Two of Walker’s immediate family members, his son Alex Walker and wife Tonette Walker, are backing Vukmir.

GOP spokesman Alec Zimmerman said in a statement that the endorsement “is a sign that a candidate has the full support of the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s grass roots activists who have fought and won in Wisconsin time and again.”

It “gives the candidate the ability to claim they’ve earned the stamp of approval from our grassroots army and access to the party’s permanent campaign infrastructure,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman declined to say what specific resources the endorsed candidate would receive through the “permanent campaign infrastructure.” The party has 10 field offices throughout the state and its statewide voter-contact initiative has been operating continuously since 2012.

A glance at the last five U.S. Senate campaigns in Wisconsin that did not have a Republican incumbent illustrates how different this one could be.

In some of those campaigns, GOP delegates chose not to endorse a candidate, typically because there was not a clear GOP front-runner. Four candidates sought the endorsement in 2012 — former Gov. Tommy Thompson, businessman Eric Hovde, then-Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and former Congressman Mark Neumann — but none got enough support to win it. Thompson ultimately won the primary but fell to Baldwin in the general election for what was then an open seat.

Endorsement ‘a really

big deal,’ Johnson recalls

Another outcome: delegates endorsed a candidate who already was, or quickly became, the party’s presumptive nominee.

In 2010, Johnson, a then-largely unknown Oshkosh businessman, won the endorsement. One of his main rivals that year, Dick Leinenkugel, stunned delegates by dropping out of the race at the convention and throwing his support to Johnson. His other top rival, Madison developer Terrence Wall, left the race days after the convention.

“For me, the endorsement was a really big deal,” Johnson said.

Tate said the state GOP’s chairman at the time, Reince Priebus, who went on to become Republican National Committee chairman, put the full weight of the state party behind Johnson after he was endorsed.

This time around, it looks unlikely that, if an endorsement is made, it will have such a field-clearing impact. Both Vukmir and Nicholson appear positioned to soldier on to the primary.

Nicholson had $837,960 on hand in his campaign at the end of March, and Vukmir had $637,680. Both also benefit from well-funded outside groups that have aired ads on their behalf and look poised to continue.

The lone Marquette Law School Poll of the race showed Nicholson leading Vukmir, 28 percent to 19 percent. It’s unclear how durable that lead might be; more than half of the poll’s respondents who said they would vote in the GOP primary said they were uncommitted in the U.S. Senate race.

Wisconsin GOP has

high bar for decision

Compared to how it works in other states, Wisconsin Republicans set a high bar for their endorsement.

Only Nicholson and Vukmir will be on the ballot, Zimmerman said. If one of the candidates gets 60 percent or more support, they win the endorsement. If neither hits that threshold, there is no endorsement.

More than 5,600 delegates are apportioned to county parties to vote on the endorsement. Only a fraction of them are expected to attend the convention and vote, but the votes of those who do attend will be apportioned based on the delegate allotment to each county.

Marian Krumberger, who chairs the Brown County Republicans, said Vukmir and Nicholson plan in the coming days to visit local activists to court their support.

Krumberger said a candidate who gets the endorsement likely would benefit from gaining access to party resources. But Krumberger also said convention delegates tend to skew older than the average voter.

“Look at the demographics of people at the convention,” Krumberger said. “It doesn’t necessarily represent the demographics of people who vote.”

Brandon Scholz, a longtime Republican strategist in Wisconsin, said the endorsement process creates drama for delegates at the convention. But in terms of its influence on the Senate race, Scholz said “I don’t believe in any way it’s the end-all of the candidate that doesn’t get” the endorsement.

“It becomes an element of the campaign, not a driving force,” Scholz said. “There will be a lot of river that flows after the convention.”

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.