Wisconsin senate candidates battle for key GOP endorsement

Wisconsin senate candidates battle for key GOP endorsement
© Screenshot/Nicholson/Vukmir

A new chapter opens in Wisconsin’s tough GOP Senate primary this weekend as state Sen. Leah Vukmir and Marine Corps veteran and businessman Kevin Nicholson battle for a crucial endorsement at the state GOP convention. 

Vukmir appears to have the inside track — she’s won support from key state GOP allies thanks to her years in the legislature working on conservative issues. A victory would give her campaign a boost, but falling short would deal it a significant blow. 

Nicholson remains undeterred. His campaign is downplaying the importance of the nod as more important for an “insider” like Vukmir, confident that his outsider message and superior resources will help Nicholson win the right to face Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinIt's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems shift strategy on impeachment vote MORE (D) in the fall.

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“Vukmir has worked to pluck the traditional establishment Republican endorsements from state legislators and party leaders, a very traditional path … she will not sit back on her laurels [if she wins],” said Brandon Scholz, a top GOP strategist in the state.

“Nicholson looks at the Trump voters in the state and the rogue action in 2016 and says that the Republican Party is broader than the attendees and delegates of the convention. His ability to reach those folks will determine whether he is successful,” he said.

Thousands of Republican activists, volunteers and voters are descending on Milwaukee this weekend for the party convention, a three-day event that includes appearances by Gov. Scott Walker (R), who’s up for reelection in November, and Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties Both sides have reason to want speedy Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Wis.).

But as far as the Senate race goes, the endorsement straw poll on Saturday will be the centerpiece.

A candidate needs 60 percent of the delegates to win the endorsement, which gives them access to key party infrastructure as well as an official seal of approval that is a helpful fundraising and motivating tool. 

Vukmir’s camp is confident that she’ll win the endorsement. Having served in the state legislature since 2002, she’s a familiar face among the activists and party faithful who make up the convention delegation. And her campaign has worked in overdrive to woo delegates.

“I’m excited for this weekend, I think the endorsement is a very important part of the process. It is critical because it’s important that our party unifies behind one candidate, someone we know is going to stand with President Donald Trump,” she said Thursday on WISN radio. 

“I started in the grass roots ... I have never forgotten where it all started for me," she said. "I value what they have done for us and have made my appeal very directly.”

Nicholson’s team, on the other hand, sees the endorsement as far from the be-all and end-all, framing the convention as a fight on Vukmir’s home turf. He’s led so far in the limited public polling available and he and his allies have outraised Vukmir’s combined effort as well.

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

Wisconsin Republicans are carefully eyeing the convention as the primary continues to roll on.

Senate Republicans are navigating crowded primaries this cycle that have often led to nasty battles that threaten to hurt the eventual nominee.

On Tuesday, Republicans wrapped up primaries in Indiana and West Virginia which had protracted, costly fights. And the party faces other messy primaries coming up in Montana and Arizona.

An endorsement by the Wisconsin GOP party now could put pressure on the losing candidate to step aside before the Aug. 14 primary. State Republicans look to 2012 as a cautionary tale — that year, a brutal three-way primary dragged through the summer and left former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson battered and bruised for a failed bid against Baldwin.

By contrast, the party unified around Johnson during his first bid for office in 2010, when he barnstormed the convention to win the endorsement. Republicans credit that unification for helping him knock off longtime-Sen. Russ Feingold (D). 

Johnson lamented past “knock-down, drag out” primaries in a Thursday interview with WISN, adding that he’d be “really encouraging the convention to endorse a candidate.”

“I’m hoping somebody realizes that one person, one or the other has the clear shot and a better chance of winning and the other one withdraws voluntarily,” he said. 

One Wisconsin Republican strategist watching the race told The Hill that Johnson’s comments weren’t a specific warning to either candidate, especially given his unexpected success in the 2010 convention, but a reminder to regularly take stock as to whether there’s still a realistic path to victory. 

No matter what happens, neither candidate is expected to drop out or ease up on the gas.

“Whoever isn’t successful isn’t going to roll up their sleeping bag and go home,” Scholz said.

Despite Johnson’s pleas for peace — and a candidate “unity pledge” — the race has had its rough moments.

Hours after the pledge signing, Vukmir hit Nicholson after one of his endorsers, former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, was quoted disparaging President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE’s eldest son in a book excerpt.

There have been numerous other flare-ups between the two sides, including a testy debate where Vukmir needled Nicholson by blasting him for having a stronger “track record” as a Democrat, while Nicholson responded by accusing “some politicians” of not having respect for his military record.

Vukmir has also seized on Nicholson’s recent remarks where he said he couldn't understand the “cognitive thought process” of veterans who vote for Democrats because “the Democrat Party has wholesale rejected the Constitution.” 

Trump’s 2016 victory in Wisconsin, along with the repeated success of the state’s grass-roots army when Walker tops the ticket, give the GOP hope in November. Yet they still acknowledge they’ll have a tough time defeating Baldwin, especially in a tough political environment for the GOP.

Even so, more than $3 million has been spent against Baldwin, a significant portion from groups with ties to mega-donor brothers, Charles and David Koch. Democratic groups, such as the Senate Majority PAC, have sought to counter that money to defend Baldwin, with more than $1 million spent to support her.

Democrats have celebrated every jab as what they see as proof that the GOP infighting could doom the party in November like it did in 2012 — the Democratic Party released a memo ahead of the convention declaring the primary the “combative, messy primary that [Republicans have] feared.”

But Wisconsin Republicans aren’t ready to sound the alarm bells yet.

The state GOP strategist downplayed the dynamic as “playground” bickering, while Scholz said the “aggressive primary” hasn’t yet turned ugly.

“They’ve thrown a few a punches, especially in that last debate, but it hasn’t gotten down to the ugly stuff,” Scholz said. “We’ll all know when it comes — the pushback from Wisconsin Republicans will be heavy to the first campaign that goes personal.”