MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans gathering for their annual convention this week are trying to unite to defeat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and reelect U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, in two of the most hotly contested races nationwide this year.
But instead of spending the past year looking ahead to 2022, Republicans have spent a lot of time bickering with one another over 2020 and whether to endorse a gubernatorial candidate this year.
"My hope is that this weekend is not a chance for very small differences in strategies to tear the party apart," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has been the target of ire from some within the party. "That only benefits Democrats."
The divisions will be on full display Saturday, as Republicans decide who to endorse for governor amid calls from one candidate and some party activists to back no one. Getting the endorsement requires support from 60% of delegates, and this year they will also have the option of voting to endorse no one.
The gubernatorial candidates are former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who polls show is the frontrunner; construction business co-owner Tim Michels; business consultant and former Marine Kevin Nicholson; and state Rep. Tim Ramthun.
Donald Trump will hang heavy over the two-day convention. He hasn't endorsed anyone in the governor's race primary, but all of the main candidates except for Nicholson have met with him to try and get his blessing. Each of them have also questioned the legitimacy of President Joe Biden's 2020 win in Wisconsin.
The party's endorsement in the governor's race is important because it unlocks funding from the state party, which can then spend as much as it wants on the winner. Being united is all the more important when facing an incumbent like Evers in a race that's a top priority for Democrats nationally.
This year, with many Republicans running as outsiders, there has been more pressure on the party — mostly from Nicholson — to back away from its typical endorsement process. That has created fractures within the party.
Nicholson, who is running as an outsider candidate, argued that endorsing a candidate ahead of the primary would create divisions unnecessarily.
"I think it's an inappropriate process, prone to be manipulated by insiders," he said.
Nicholson initially said he didn't want the party's endorsement, then he said he wanted his name to be on the ballot along with a "no endorsement" option. That is the recommendation that convention delegates will be asked to approve Saturday morning before hearing from the candidates. Delegates can also vote to endorse Nicholson.
Nicholson ran for U.S. Senate in 2018 and did not receive the party's endorsement before losing in the primary. He cites his own previous race as an example of why the party endorsing is a bad idea.
"The party got ahead of the primary, used the tail to wag the dog, and tried to influence the primary, for sure," he said.
Kleefisch, who did not get the party's endorsement for lieutenant governor in 2010 but won the primary by nearly 20 points, said she wants to win it this time. But Kleefisch said even if she doesn't get it, as her race 12 years ago showed, she still thinks she will win the primary.
Michels did not return messages seeking comment. Michels has declined multiple requests to speak with The Associated Press since launching his candidacy three weeks ago.
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said endorsements from the Republican Party won't unite them, but instead "will likely fracture this primary even further."
In addition to drama over the endorsement, the convention will also put on display tension over how Republicans have responded to the 2020 election. All four gubernatorial candidates favor dramatically overhauling how elections are run in the battleground state.
Vos has spent the past decade delivering win after win for the GOP but has been targeted by some for not pursuing Trump's false claims of election fraud vigorously enough.
Ramthun, whose campaign for governor is focused on decertifying Biden's win in 2020, said recently that Vos should be prosecuted over his response to the election and in March said he wanted to punch Vos after being kicked out of a meeting.
Vos has rejected calls from Ramthun and others to decertify Biden's win, agreeing with attorneys who have said it's not legally possible. Vos did hire a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice to investigate the 2020 election, but last week put that probe is on hold.
Ramthun did not return messages seeking comment.
In addition to the governor's race, Republicans will be voting on endorsements for statewide races for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and treasurer. The state Democratic Party convention will be June 25 in La Crosse. Democrats do not endorse.
The primary is Aug. 9.
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