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Wisconsin GOP asks US Senate candidates to sign ‘unity pledge’

January 3, 2018

The state Republican Party wants its U.S. Senate candidates to sign a “unity pledge” to back the GOP nominee in the 2018 general election -- a sign that party insiders fear a contentious primary could fracture the Republican grassroots.

Both candidates currently vying to oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018 -- State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, and businessman Kevin Nicholson, R-Delafield -- said Wednesday they would sign the pledge.

A third Republican, Madison businessman Eric Hovde, has said he also may join the race.

Besides calling on the candidates to support the eventual Republican nominee, the pledge also calls for them to run “a campaign focused on defeating Sen. Tammy Baldwin.” In return for signing it, candidates will gain access to lists of delegates that will decide the endorsement at the 2018 state party convention.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson also announced Wednesday that he’ll oversee the party’s endorsement process. In a statement, Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said winning the party’s endorsement was key to his upset election win in 2010, which sent him to the U.S. Senate.

Johnson, in his statement also warned against letting “national outsiders meddle with” Wisconsin Republicans’ “proven record of success.”

“Here in Wisconsin, the grassroots have a track record of nominating candidates who reflect our values – not Washington’s – and we can do it again,” Johnson said.

Nicholson, a political newcomer, has won key support from several out-of-state sources, including the national conservative group Club for Growth and President Donald Trump’s former strategist, Steven Bannon. Illinois businessman Dick Uihlein also has donated $3.5 million to pro-Nicholson super PAC that has been airing TV ads on his behalf.

Vukmir, meanwhile, has sought to be the candidate of the state’s grassroots conservatives. She has won praise from influential conservative talk radio hosts in southeast Wisconsin and endorsements from a long list of Wisconsin GOP elected officials, including state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Vukmir also has her own corps of deep-pocketed donors, including Afton billionaire Diane Hendricks.

Wisconsin Republicans did not endorse a U.S. Senate candidate in 2012 because none of the four candidates reached the 60-percent threshold of delegate support required to secure it. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson won the GOP primary that year, before going on to lose in the general election to Baldwin.

Wisconsin Democrats said the pledge shows the GOP U.S. Senate primary is dividing the party.

“The fact that Wisconsin Republicans need a unity pledge shows how nasty their primary has become,” Democratic spokesman Brad Bainum said in a statement.