State Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) captured her party’s endorsement Saturday with nearly 72 percent of the vote at the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s annual convention on Saturday.
“I’m humbled by this endorsement by our party, the grassroots in Wisconsin,” Vukmir said afterward. “It’s a historic endorsement and I humbly accept it.”
Vukmir is facing Kevin Nicholson, a former U.S. Marine and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nicholson’s campaign had all but conceded the result prior to the convention. “We are attending the convention and we’ll work to energize as many Republican activists as humanly possible for victory in November,” Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody told supporters in an email before the convention. “But our campaign continues to remain laser focused on the two main turning points in this race – Primary and General Election Day. That has always been our focus.”
Winning the endorsement gives a boost to the Vukmir campaign which, so far, has been behind in fundraising and in the last Marquette Law School poll. Vukmir will now have the official support of the Republican Party’s infrastructure and resources, although it is vague what that access will mean in practical terms.
Both candidates spoke to the convention before the county parties cast their ballots.
Vukmir’s speech was focused on her conservative accomplishments in the legislature, saying they would not have been possible without the support of the delegates in the room. It was Vukmir’s attempt to make the delegates feel already invested in her campaign.
“We have accomplished so much and we have done it together,” Vukmir said at the beginning of her speech.
After giving attendees credit for President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 and explaining how she started out in politics as a grassroots activist, Vukmir reminded the delegates of what has been accomplished in recent years with their support.
“Together we delivered in Wisconsin,” Vukmir said. “Together we broke the stranglehold of public sector unions and we created an economic miracle in our state. Together we delivered on big, bold conservative reforms.”
Vukmir also promised to be a “strong conservative” in order to defeat Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) in November. “We’re going to need someone who is going to hold her feet to the fire,” Vukmir said. “We’re going to need someone who the liberals will go crazy about.”
Instead of reaching out to the delegates, Nicholson started his speech in a more defiant tone to answer the recent criticism over the controversy of Nicholson questioning “the cognitive processes” of military veterans voting Democratic. Nicholson said that if the country adhered to its principles, the government could stand for another 10,000 years.
“But to do that, we need United States Senators that understand those principles and are willing to fight and stand for them,” Nicholson said. “And never, never back down. Even if they ask you to apologize. And sometimes they do.”
But the majority of his speech was biographical, from learning about politics from his grandfather to his military experience.
Nicholson, like his wife and uncle, reminded the conventioneers that he began his political career as a Democrat. “I had to walk the path I did to be the conservative I am today,” Nicholson said.
Sounding a defiant tone about not getting the support of some of the more prominent Republicans at the convention, Nicholson said he didn’t need their permission to run. “Much to the chagrin of some folks in this room, I never asked anyone for permission to run for this office,” Nicholson said. “And I never will ask for permission. I will ask advice, but never permission before doing the right thing.”
Nicholson returned to the controversy again later in his speech by noting that Democrats were attacking him. “And as we push forward in this campaign, I will continue to challenge thought processes, because we must,” Nicholson said. “That is how you win, not just elections, but the future of countries.”
Prior to her speech, Vukmir was nominated by Rachel Campos-Duffy, the wife of Congressman Sean Duffy and a Fox News personality who spoke about the importance of conservative women in politics. She was followed by former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a popular figure with convention delegates because of his time as chairman of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.
Nicholson, on the other hand, was nominated by his wife and his uncle. Their speeches were followed by a video of U.S. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), national figures that have endorsed Nicholson. No local political figures spoke on Nicholson’s behalf.
After the victory by Vukmir, her campaign manager called on Nicholson to drop out of the race and support the convention’s choice.
“The heart of our party, our conservative grassroots, sent a deafening message today that it is time to unify behind Leah Vukmir and focus on the task of defeating Tammy Baldwin,” said campaign manager Jess Ward in a press release. “It’s time for Kevin Nicholson to respect the will of the people that have delivered Gov. Walker and Sen. Johnson into office time and time again, and leave the race.”
However, given his lead in fundraising and his professed lead according to his internal polling, it’s unlikely Nicholson will be ending his campaign anytime soon.
At the beginning of endorsing of U.S. Senate candidate, Sen. Ron Johnson reminded the delegates of how he won the party’s endorsement the first time he ran in 2010. Two of his opponents dropped out, including one on the day of the convention, Dick Leinenkugel, who endorsed Johnson. The other candidate, Terrence Wall, dropped out shortly after the convention that endorsed Johnson. Johnson praised them for not making the election about themselves and dropping out rather than hurting Johnson’s chances.
A third candidate, Dave Westlake, continued his campaign but Johnson praised him, too, for running a campaign with”great integrity” because he ran a positive campaign rather than attack Johnson. Using those examples, Johnson gave advice to Nicholson and Vukmir.
“As you move forward with your campaign, please do nothing to harm the other candidate,” Johnson said. He also asked them not to use all of their resources fighting each other during the primary so they would have something left to take on Baldwin.
Earlier in the day while introducing Governor Scott Walker, Johnson reminded the delegates of how Walker had decided in 2006 to drop out of the race for governor rather than continue a losing campaign against Congressman Mark Green. Green would go on to lose to Governor Jim Doyle, Walker’s Democratic predecessor.
The votes at the convention for each county were apportioned by the size of the delegation. The delegates present cast their ballots and then the county votes were then cast for each of the candidates proportionally. During the roll call vote of the counties with the unofficial tallies, it was Washington County that finally gave Vukmir enough votes to claim the endorsement.