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MILWAUKEE — Delegates at the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s convention Saturday overwhelmingly rejected a resolution affirming the state’s right to secede from the United States in extreme circumstances.

Some delegates worried the party could become a national laughingstock if the resolution passed.

“The party spoke loudly today that secession is not something we support,” executive director Joe Fadness said after the vote.

The secession debate drew attention leading up to the convention, which featured speeches from the state’s Republican leaders, including Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and others.

Walker told the crowd gathered at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee not to be distracted by side issues.

“The real story is Wisconsin is better off than it was four years ago,” Walker said in an upbeat speech. “And it will be even better four years from now if Republicans continue to reform our state government.”

He touted his record, including tax cuts and the state’s dropping unemployment rate. That rate recently dropped to 5.9 percent, the lowest since November 2008. The first-term Republican said his goal is for a 5.5 percent rate by the middle of the year.

Walker on Saturday repeatedly echoed his new campaign slogan, “Wisconsin is back on.”

Ryan urged Republicans to remain unified.

“Why do we have to unify? Because we have to win elections,” Ryan said.

Keynote speaker Indiana Gov. Mike Pence told the delegates that Wisconsin is “home to the most courageous governor” in the U.S.

Walker also was the favorite presidential candidate among convention-goers in a straw poll conducted by WisPolitics.com. Walker — who has not formally announced an intention to run — got 97 votes out of the 315 cast. That was nearly double the tally for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who got 50, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville, with 49.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, also got a show of support. Grothman, a candidate for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, was backed by 159 conventioneers. State Sen. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan, got 85 votes, and state Rep. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, had 32 votes in the straw poll.

Convention delegates obviously did not all agree on several of the 23 resolutions, including ones dealing with secession, nullification of federal laws and criticism of a pair of Republican lawmakers over their handling of the Common Core education standards.

But it became clear Saturday that the majority of GOP delegates opposed secession.

Speaking on the floor, state Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, warned that the push for the secession resolution was “not friendly to the party.” And he was critical of the proposal endorsing the right for Wisconsin to ignore federal laws it doesn’t like.

“The Republican Party does not want to chase down the rabbit hole of nullification,” Kapenga said.

His comments came one day after most Assembly Republicans wrote a letter to delegates calling on them “to reject the worthless resolution.”

Although Kapenga did not sign the letter, he made it clear Saturday he opposed the resolution. But several delegates defended it.

“There is no more burning question than our sovereign rights as a state,” said Don Hilbig, a Rock County delegate. “Secession is a critical part of that.”

That resolution also called on lawmakers to push nullification of certain federal laws, including the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and use of the national Common Core education standards in Wisconsin schools. It also sought to ban the use of drones in the state.

The secession language was stripped from the resolution, and then the entire resolution was defeated overwhelmingly.

Democrats were enjoying the in-fighting from afar.

“Scott Walker’s Republican Party can spend all the time they want arguing over secession and nullification,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in an email. “We’ll spend ours talking about how we can move Wisconsin forward with Mary Burke.”

Republicans also rejected a resolution that would have condemned Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, for allegedly being “biased champions” for Common Core standards in Wisconsin. But the delegates overwhelmingly backed a resolution opposing Common Core standards, which have been a target of some conservatives. Another resolution aimed at nullifying Obamacare in Wisconsin was defeated on a standing vote.

Many said the party needed to focus on winning elections rather than issues such as secession and nullification. Delegate Randy Kenny told the crowd, “We need to win in order to do any good.”

After the convention, attendee John Schultz of Arkdale noted that Republicans belong to the party of President Abraham Lincoln, who presided over a civil war sparked by Southern states’ attempts to secede from the union.

“That’s what Lincoln tried to do, to keep the country together,” Schultz said.

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State Government Reporter for Wisconsin State Journal