MIDDLETON, Wis. -- Wisconsin Republicans voted Saturday not to endorse anyone for governor ahead of the GOP primary in August, with former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch falling just short of the 60% needed to get the nod — and cash — that comes with winning the party's official backing.
It marked the first time delegates have not endorsed a candidate for governor. Many activists, and one of Kleefisch's rivals, had argued for not endorsing anyone, saying it would fracture the party.
The winner of the Aug. 9 primary will advance to face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, in a race that’s a top priority for both parties nationally. In addition to Kleefisch, who polls have shown is leading the field, other candidates are construction business co-owner Tim Michels; business consultant and former Marine Kevin Nicholson; and state Rep. Timothy Ramthun.
The Republican endorsement has been highly sought after because it unlocks funding from the state party, which can then spend as much as it wants on the winner. Now the top candidates will fight it out without any official backing from the party.
Kleefisch got 55%, while “no endorsement” got 43% on the final ballot. The other candidates were all in the single digits.
After the vote, Kleefisch declared victory, saying she feels “terrific” with getting majority support despite falling short of what was needed for the endorsement.
Kleefisch, the only woman running for governor, served eight years under former Gov. Scott Walker between 2011 and 2019.
She described herself at the annual convention outside of Madison as a “tea party mom” and highlighted her victory in a 2011 recall election and her opposition to abortion.
“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.”
She portrayed herself as a fighter, opposed to vaccine mandates, in support of school choice and the only candidate “tested against the liberal mob,” referring to protesters who demonstrated against Walker’s ending of collective bargaining for most public workers.
Michels, the most recent candidate to get in the race, dismissed attacks against him for living out of state part-time for years, calling them “garbage” and “political smear.”
“I am in this to win, but I am not here to tear down this convention or any other candidate for governor,” Michels said. He didn’t directly ask for an endorsement, saying he wanted attendees’ votes in August and November.
Nicholson, a former Marine, advocated for no endorsement, but he kept his name in consideration.
“I want Republicans to win and we can’t do that if our party is fractured,” he said. “An endorsement today does not put us in a position of strength.”
Delegates approved a rule change earlier Saturday that allowed for the “no endorsement” option.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who supports Kleefisch, downplayed the importance of winning the endorsement, likening it to a straw poll and saying it’s just one indicator of a candidate’s strength.
Evers has issued more vetoes than any governor in Wisconsin history in blocking the Republican-controlled Legislature’s agenda. A Republican governor would give the GOP the power to enact any laws it wished.
The Republican Party has endorsed candidates since 2009, including the past three governor’s races. Winning that backing was crucial to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s win in his first race in 2010. Johnson, who is up for reelection this year, focused his speech not on Democrats running against him but instead defending his record and attacking the media.
“I can’t even breathe without them taking my exhalation and distorting and twisting it,” Johnson said of the media. “My race is literally about the truth versus lies and distortion.”
Divisions within the Republican Party have been a distraction: Some Republicans have called for the ouster of Vos for not pursuing former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud vigorously enough and refusing to decertify President Joe Biden’s win.
“We have no ability to decertify the election and go back,” Vos said, generating loud boos from many in the crowd. “We need to focus on moving forward.”
All of the GOP gubernatorial candidates have questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s win in Wisconsin, even though the outcome has withstood recounts, lawsuits, an audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and a review by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Ramthun, whose campaign for governor is focused on decertifying Biden’s win in 2020, told convention attendees that he would personally perform a “forensic audit” on both the primary and the general election.
“Election integrity is the No. 1 issue in the state,” he said to cheers.
Trump 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.
Republicans also voted not to endorse in the races for lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state. They did endorse treasurer candidate Orlando Owens, who is running for an office with almost no official duties or powers. Johnson, who has no Republican challenger, was also endorsed.
The state Democratic Party convention will be June 25 in La Crosse. Democrats do not endorse.