MIDDLETON - Wisconsin Republicans refused to endorse any of the four candidates for governor at their annual state convention for the first time — a symbolic rejection of the political apparatus that has been blamed by its own members for failing to deliver statewide victories in recent years.
Forty-five percent of votes cast by about 1,500 delegates who gathered in Middleton Saturday for the Republican Party of Wisconsin annual convention voted to abandon the long-established election-year exercise used to signal to voters which candidates are competitive.
The delegates chose between endorsing former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch for governor and not endorsing anyone. Ultimately, no one prevailed — even after former Republican Gov. Scott Walker made an appeal in support of Kleefisch, reminding them he was launched into a string of victories by an endorsement by the party.
Kleefisch received 55% of delegates' votes — far more of the vote share than any other candidate. But it was just shy of the 60% threshold required under party rules to receive a party endorsement, which provides party resources to a candidate throughout the rest of the primary and general election.
“Guys, I'm declaring victory,” she told reporters. “When you take a look at the numbers in there, I won the majority."
She noted she won the 2010 race for lieutenant governor even though she was the first candidate eliminated for consideration of an endorsement that year.
Kleefisch said she did not expect the lack of an endorsement to hurt her fundraising. Primary opponents Tim Michels is funding his campaign using his vast wealth and Kevin Nicholson is benefitting from spending by a group funded by Uline president Dick Uihlein
“Every single week we are eclipsing our weekly goals," Kleefisch said of her fundraising. "We're going to continue to be on a tear. I'm familiar with the path of being an underdog and I know as a challenger to Tony Evers, who has more money than Midas, I will be exactly that.”
Nicholson, who received 3% of delegate votes, has campaigned for months at local county party gatherings for a convention ballot that featured "no endorsement" as an option, or abandoning the endorsement process altogether.
In his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 2018, Nicholson lost the party endorsement to then-state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who went on to lose to Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin by double digits.
In his race for governor, Nicholson has urged Republicans to abandon the party endorsement process he predicted would deliver Kleefisch the party blessing. He said he viewed the outcome of the endorsement vote as a "solid rejection" of Kleefisch.
"Her campaign has been predicated on this. She believes she needs it to win the primary. She's the candidate that went hardest at this and really laid herself out there and begged for it. And she didn't get it," Nicholson said after the vote.
Chris Walker, adviser to Michels' campaign, heralded the outcome of the vote.
"We came into today expecting Rebecca Kleefisch would win this vote of her delegates on the first ballot. Nothing about today's results changes our campaign plan," he said in a statement. "It's going to take an outsider with the resources and the right experience to united the party, bring in new voters, and beat Tony Evers."
State Rep. Tim Ramthun, who initially received about 5% of delegate votes, said he was pleased to see the party had not endorsed anyone and believed it gave him momentum in the primary.
“The party needs to stop forcing something like they wanted to try to do today for someone they had a preference, who was very clear,” he said, acknowledging he was referring to Kleefisch.
Kleefisch has become a symbol for the state GOP establishment, even as she makes the case to voters as being an outsider to what she has characterized as a boys' club she infiltrated in 2010 when the party's preferred male candidate failed to defeat her.
In her convention speech, Kleefisch argued against abortion, noting her role as a mother who did not let her desire to have a family to get in the way of a career.
“Now, I’m not a biologist,” Kleefisch said. “But I am a woman and I will not let a man like Tony Evers tell me how I’m supposed to feel about Roe. I will win this because I can speak with a mother’s heart.”
In his speech to delegates, Nicholson framed himself as a born-again conservative who sacrificed his relationship with his parents, who support Democrats, for his political beliefs.
"They actually donated to Tammy Baldwin as I was running for the U.S. Senate. We have not heard from them in years. That was not my choice," he said.
Ramthun, the first speaker in the governor's race, triggered the first applause line among the speeches as he outlined his unsuccessful effort to get lawmakers to take up a resolution to decertify the 2020 election, which legal scholars have said is impossible at this point.
"I will never stop pursuing closure for truth and transparency to get right so we can feel comfortable" while voting, he said.
Michels, like Kleefisch and Nicholson, said the August primary election should be moved to April to avoid months of mudslinging between Republicans.
"I'm tired of Republicans fighting in public, letting the media fuel the fire and letting the Democrats take advantage of us," he told convention attendees.
Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
Contact Molly Beck at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mollybeck.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Republicans withhold endorsement of governor candidates