GREEN BAY — House Speaker Paul Ryan said Saturday night at the Wisconsin state GOP convention that party unity after one of the most divisive presidential primaries in history will take time — though he wouldn’t set a timeline for how long it will take.
“When it comes to the presidential election, we think it’s important that we have real party unity, not pretend party unity — so we go into the fall election at full strength,” Ryan said. “Let’s not pretend one or two weeks after one of the most divisive primaries in the modern era that everyone is unified and on the same page.”
Ryan spoke with reporters before addressing a private dinner on the last night of the convention, where state Republican leaders stressed the importance of winning the November presidential election and re-electing U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, while largely side-stepping mention of presumptive nominee Donald Trump.
For some at the convention, the wounds caused by Trump’s clinching of the nomination were still fresh. The brash New York billionaire and reality TV celebrity was soundly defeated in Wisconsin in the April 5 primary, but mostly romped over the other 16 Republican candidates, including Gov. Scott Walker.
Pamela Mundling, 58, an insurance agent from Kenosha, said she spent two days sick in bed after the last two challengers to Trump dropped out of the race. Mundling said she is considering voting for the Libertarian or Constitutional Party candidate.
“I don’t understand his popularity,” Mundling said. “He doesn’t stand for anything. He’s just being a schoolyard bully throwing insults at people.”
Jeff Johns, 46, a financial consultant from Cedarburg, was one of the only attendees sporting Trump’s trademark “Make America Great Again” red baseball cap. He said he would have liked to see elected officials mention Trump in their speeches.
“Trump was going to be the nominee back in February,” Johns said. “I felt back then that the earlier we get behind one candidate the easier it’s going to be to beat Hillary. We need to get behind one candidate sooner rather than later.”
U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman and Sean Duffy urged unified support for Trump, though with varied levels of enthusiasm, a reflection of the mood at the convention.
Grothman didn’t mention Trump by name, but framed the election as being about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court, while declaring his love for legal immigrants and lamenting the moral decline of America based on the latest legal battle over transgender bathroom rights.
Sensenbrenner noted Trump won the nomination “fair and square,” which elicited a smattering of applause. He got more applause when he followed with, “I voted for Ted Cruz.” He also criticized Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for her response to a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and an FBI investigation into her use of personal email while Secretary of State.
“Do we want four more years of that from the bully pulpit?” Sensenbrenner asked. “Or do we want somebody who will bring this country back to common sense, back to sanity?”
Duffy offered the most resounding endorsement, while acknowledging, “I know everybody here didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but most everybody in my district did.”
“We have to work together to make sure a Republican candidate, our Republican nominee, is the next president,” Duffy said. “We’re going to make America great again with Donald Trump.”
In the morning session, state leaders sidestepped mention of their party’s presumptive nominee altogether.
Walker said he’s been asked numerous times whether the Wisconsin Republican Party is unified. Walker has said he will support the party’s nominee, but he didn’t mention Trump in his speech Saturday.
“The Republicans in this hall and across the state are overwhelmingly united behind Ron Johnson to be our United States Senator,” Walker said. “That needs to be our clear focus. … I’m going to work like I’m on the ballot for Ron Johnson this year.”
Johnson, facing a tough re-election battle against Democrat Russ Feingold, evoked the heroic story of doomed 9/11 United Flight 93 in calling on Republicans to “save this Senate seat” and “make sure the 10 electoral votes get assigned to the presidential candidate, the Republican presidential candidate.”
Attorney General Brad Schimel emphasized the importance of the November election because the next president could nominate three or more Supreme Court justices and federal judges who could roll back state conservative legislative victories on gun rights and voter ID.
“None of it will matter if we elect the wrong president,” Schimel said, without offering who might be the right president.
“Do you want more Supreme Court justices who think their job is social engineering?” Schimel asked. “Then make the right decisions this fall. Send Sen. (Ron) Johnson back to Washington. Make sure he is part of this judicial selection process.”
Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who has said the party should embrace Trump as a populist who draws in new voters, didn’t mention the presumptive nominee in his speech, but said “this party should move towards voters, rather than asking the voters to move toward us.”
“What resonates is a clear message, a candidate able to deliver it and a fire in their belly,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s time for us to coalesce; it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves; it’s time for us to win some more elections.”