At the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s annual convention, held in Middleton over the weekend, five GOP candidates for governor each received 12 minutes to make their case to delegates on why they deserved the party’s endorsement ahead of the Aug. 9 primary. Rebecca Kleefisch, widely considered the front-runner in the race, elected to have her former running mate use most of her allotted time. 

“Beating Tony Evers is not going to be easy. Hard to imagine, because Tony Evers is an incompetent incumbent. He’s a radical, he’s not up for the job,” said former Gov. Scott Walker on May 21 in the Marriott convention hall, priming the crowd for Kleefisch to speak. “Money alone isn’t going to win this election. We’ve got to have the right message and the right candidate…. Rebecca Kleefisch is the right candidate to defeat Tony Evers this fall.”

The big question at this year’s gathering of Wisconsin Republicans was whether Kleefisch could convince around 1,500 delegates from across the state to unite behind her candidacy for governor. According to party rules if a candidate receives at least 60 percent support from delegates at the state convention, that candidate can start tapping into the party’s resources and campaign infrastructure even if other Republicans are competing for the nomination. After three long hours and two ballots, the party opted not to endorse any Republican candidate for governor. 

But Kleefisch tried her best to nab her party’s endorsement and she came damn close. The former lieutenant governor won support from a majority of delegates (54.5 percent) but failed to reach the 60 percent threshold. Several party insiders, who asked for anonymity, told Isthmus that Kleefisch was the only candidate even trying to win the endorsement. She went all out the first night of the convention when gubernatorial candidates pressed the flesh in private hospitality rooms. Kleefisch’s suite had a retro arcade theme featuring pinball, vintage coin-op games and a claw machine (plus free beer). It was reported to be packed most of the night. In addition to Walker whipping votes as a surrogate, Kleefisch’s 16-year-old daughter, Violet, spent an admirably long stint on Saturday talking to delegates one-on-one at her mother’s booth outside the convention floor.

“I like helping my mom because her intentions are always good,” this reporter heard Violet tell one delighted delegate, with all the finesse of a seasoned politician. “I hope she can count on your support.” 

The other Republicans in the race include Tim Michels and Kevin Nicholson, who are both wealthy businessmen, veterans, and unsuccessful candidates for U.S. Senate. Also running is state Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R-Campbellsport) who is so convinced the 2020 presidential election was stolen in Wisconsin he keeps insisting Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) was in on the plot. His hospitality suite Friday night was also reportedly well attended because celebrity election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell — the My Pillow Guy — made an appearance. Then there’s Adam Fischer, a longshot candidate who describes himself as “one pissed-off American.” All four candidates lobbied delegates to vote “no endorsement,” a move intended to keep Kleefisch from receiving the party’s seal of approval and its resources — which some at the convention feared would be used to attack other Republicans in the primary race. 

One veteran GOP campaign staffer at the convention, who asked not to be quoted by name, told Isthmus that Kleefisch needed the party’s endorsement because she’s worried about construction magnate Michels, who just entered the race in April. 

“Rebecca is the frontrunner for sure. But what if Michels decided to go negative?” said the source. “He hasn’t yet. But that might be a real problem.” 

Several people at the convention told Isthmus that Michels has been spending 1 million dollars a week (mostly for TV ads) on his campaign. Michels campaign did not immediately respond to an email asking to confirm the charge, and that figure seems high. Even so, Michels told delegates at the convention he’s willing to self-finance his campaign, which likely means spending millions of his own fortune. He vows not to accept any donations from lobbyists or political action committees, or individual donations above $500. 

Nicholson, who entered the race in January, will likely have access to some deep pockets, too. He has the backing of GOP mega donor Dick Uihlein, founder of Wisconsin-based business supply company Uline. Uihlein-supported super PACs spent nearly $11 million on Nicholson’s failed primary campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018, which he lost to then-state Sen. Leah Vukmir (who lost to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the general election). 

Ramthun is remarkably soft-spoken given his reputation as a bomb thrower who calls out fellow Republicans. He thinks it’s wrong for the Republican Party of Wisconsin to endorse a gubernatorial candidate ahead of a competitive primary and calls it “disenfranchisement.” 

“The no endorsement is a message to party leaders that we’re tired of being told to be rubber stamps and have the nominee dictated to us,” Ramthun told Isthmus. “The endorsement comes with funding help from the party, a lot of press, and other stuff that help separate a candidate from the pack. It pretty much puts [other GOP candidates] in a bad place…. I’m glad we stopped it.” 

Ramthun isn’t worried about Michels or his money.

“He’s been living in Connecticut for 13 years and hasn’t been around,” said Ramthun, referring to an expose by conservative news outlet Wisconsin Right Now, the details of which Michels largely confirmed with conservative radio host Dan O’Donnell (although Michels insists he’s been living in Wisconsin enough to legally be considered a resident). 

“Michels is doing okay in the polls because he’s spending a lot of money on TV. But we still have 30 percent of voters undecided in the Republican Party primary,” said Ramthun. “I have some pending endorsements coming and while Michels’ support will wane, mine is going to steadily grow.”

Former Madison school board candidate David Blaska, a lifelong Republican who attended this year’s convention, confirms that Kleefisch fought hard for the GOP endorsement likely because she’s concerned about Michels.

“It wasn’t a great weekend for Rebecca — who I support by the way. Not only did she not get the party endorsement and all that comes with it, but now she’s cast herself as the establishment candidate,” Blaska said. “That could give Michels an opening.” 

Blaska would be fine with Michels being the nominee, but he says Republicans have good reason to be worried about an expensive, ugly primary contest. 

“Look what happened to Tommy Thompson when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2012,” said Blaska. “He shot his whole load just winning the primary election. Tommy went into the general [election] having spent a lot of money and was beaten up in the primary.” 

If Kleefisch was disappointed about not receiving her party’s endorsement, she didn’t show it when speaking with reporters after the vote. 

“I’m declaring victory,” Kleefisch said during a press gaggle. “I am proud to have the support of the grassroots of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.” 

“TWO MORE QUESTIONS,” shouted a Kleefisch staffer abruptly. Should other candidates consider dropping out, a TV reporter asks?

“I’m not going to give orders to other candidates in the race. I’m here to win hearts and minds,” responded Kleefisch. “I think what today’s vote proved is that work ethic matters. I won’t be outworked in this race. I won’t be outworked as your governor.”

The staffer barked again, “ONE MORE [question].” 

Another reporter asked if Kleefisch could still consider herself the front-runner without the party’s endorsement. Kleefisch got quiet and stared the journalist down. 

“Did you see the numbers?” she asked before her handler escorted her away. 

Evidently waiting nearby, Nicholson immediately stepped in to answer questions from the media. Like Ramthun, Nicholson declared victory for helping prevent the party from endorsing Kleefisch.

“There is no doubt that Rebecca Kleefisch wanted this [endorsement] incredibly bad and she lost it. At the end of the day, the people of Wisconsin won as a result,” said Nicholson. “My goal is to win the governorship, move the primary up to April or May. Then we can do this convention, after the voters have their say, as a catalyzing moment to move forward into the general election. That’s the way it should have been done many years ago. I don’t know why it wasn’t but we’re going to fix it.” 

One delegate smoking a Pall Mall cigarette and wearing a MAGA hat told Isthmus the “only endorsement that matters is Trump’s.” So far, the man who holds court at Mar-a-Lago hasn’t bestowed his blessing upon any Republican running for governor. 

Don’t count Kleefisch out just yet. As she reminded Republican delegates during her four-minute speech at the convention, she didn’t receive her party’s endorsement when she ran for lieutenant governor in 2010.

“Twelve years ago, I stood before this convention and I asked for your endorsement for my first ever run for political office,” Kleefisch told the GOP faithful. “I lost that day. But I won that [primary] election thanks to you.”

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