Wisconsin Republicans Look to Head Off Divisive Senate Primary

GOP wants candidates to make “unity pledge” to participate in endorsement process

Wisconsin Republicans Kevin Nicholson and Leah Vukmir have both said they will sign the unity pledge. (Courtesy Kevin Nicholson for Senate, Leah Vukmir for Senate)

Wisconsin Republicans are launching a new “unity pledge,” calling for Senate candidates to promise to support the eventual nominee — an attempt to unify after a potentially divisive GOP primary.

The state party announced Wednesday that candidates looking to earn the endorsement of grass-roots conservatives at the state convention will have to sign the pledge. Signees will also agree to conduct their campaigns “in a manner that is respectful of my fellow Republican candidates,” according to a copy of the agreement.

Candidates who sign the pledge will then gain access to the state party infrastructure, including a list of potential convention delegates who could participate in the endorsement process. Both Republicans currently running, Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir, said they would sign the pledge.

Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, the state’s senior senator, will chair the endorsement process. He called on all GOP Senate candidates to sign the agreement, noting that the state’s conservatives will be crucial to the candidate’s success in the general election against Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin.

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“Wisconsin needs a person of integrity supported by the good folks of our state to help advance conservative reform and take on Washington’s professional political class,” Johnson said in a press release. “That person will need Wisconsin’s conservative grassroots to win.”

Early unity

The grass-roots endorsement will occur at the state convention, which in the past has taken place in the spring. The primary is not until Aug. 14. 

Johnson was re-elected to a second term in 2016 and won the grass-roots endorsement when he first ran in 2010. But convention delegates failed to agree on a nominee in 2012.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the eventual primary winner, was eliminated after the second round of ballots at the convention, according to The Associated Press. Jeff Fitzgerald, the state assembly speaker at the time, received the highest number of votes, but not enough to receive the grass-roots endorsement. Some suggested after the 2012 race that the divisive GOP primary weakened Thompson in his general election battle against Baldwin. She ended up winning by 6 points. 

Some Republicans are already divided over support for Nicholson and Vukmir. It is also still possible that businessman Eric Hovde, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2012, could jump in the race.

Nicholson, a former Democrat, has been endorsed by the conservative Club for Growth PAC. He is also backed by the Great America PAC, which has ties to Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump and the head of the far-right Breitbart News.

Spokesman Brandon Moody said in an email Wednesday that Nicholson will sign the pledge and “he hopes that all Republicans will unite behind our nominee to defeat Baldwin.”

Vukmir has ties to Gov. Scott Walker, whose son is working for her campaign. She has also received backing from several state and local officials, and PACs supporting GOP women running for office, including RightNOW Women and Maggie’s List. 

Vukmir said in a statement that she would sign the pledge.

“I’m proud to sign the Wisconsin GOP unity pledge,” she said. “As a lifelong Republican, I’ve always supported the party nominee and you can bet I’ll be doing everything I can this November to make sure Wisconsin has a Senator who believes in the Wisconsin Way.”

A new tack

This is the first time candidates looking to participate in the endorsement process are being asked to make such a pledge. The elected grass-roots leaders on the state party’s executive committee unanimously approved the pledge in early December.

“It’s not a reaction to any one piece of news,” one GOP source said.

“The party wants to be proactive. There are certainly examples of divisive primaries in our history,” the source said, referring to GOP primaries not just in Wisconsin but in recent election cycles across the country.

Wisconsin Democrats dismissed the GOP unity pledge, with party spokesman Brad Bainum saying it showed “how nasty their primary has become.”

“No matter who the nominee is — both Vukmir and Nicholson are willing [to] put their billionaire donors and special interests ahead [of] Wisconsin by driving up the cost of health care and working to cut Wisconsinites’ Social Security and Medicare,” Bainum said.

Republicans have a number of opportunities to unseat Senate Democrats in GOP-leaning states in 2018. Ten Democrats are facing re-election in states won by Trump in 2016. But the GOP is gearing up for potentially divisive primaries in a number of those states, as well as in Arizona and Nevada, which feature toss-up races for seats held by Republicans.

The concern is that a heated primary could weaken the eventual nominee or produce a candidate who is too conservative to win in November. However, primaries can also be early tests of candidates’ viability and campaign organizations.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Wisconsin race Tilts Democratic. Trump won the Badger State by less than a point in 2016.

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