Civil war brewing in state GOP over candidate endorsements, party to vote on changing rules

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MADISON Wis. (CBS 58) -- There is a civil war brewing in the state Republican Party as members of the grassroots are demanding changes to the long-standing tradition of endorsing a candidate at the party's annual convention.

It has turned into a contentious debate with more than 20 county parties passing resolutions for a "no-endorsement" option or to eliminate the process entirely, which has been in place for more than a decade.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin is considering changing the rules at their state convention to allow delegates to choose not to endorse a candidate.

This weekend the party's rules committee will decide whether to make changes to the endorsement process. If a majority approves, a final decision to include a "no endorsement" option will be determined on May 20 to kick off the weekend-long convention, according to Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

"I think it's going to be fairly close," said Jefferson. "I don't think there's a consensus out there whether or not to have it."

The endorsement plays a major role in helping a candidate break from their opponents because it essentially gives them full support and resources from the party leading up to the August 9 primary.

It's been a process in place since 2009, but a growing number of Republicans are unhappy with the tradition because they believe it's exclusionary and doesn't allow other candidates to succeed.

Russ Otten, chair of the Sheboygan Republican Party, is one of several party leaders who want to end the practice.

"It's a no-brainer because we feel that no one should be telling us who to vote for during the primary," Otten said. "I think the system doesn't work if it precludes a winner before anyone has voted."

The Republican party used to offer a "no endorsement" option before it was eliminated. In order to secure the party’s endorsement, candidates must receive at least 60 percent of delegates' votes at the convention.

The policy was adopted by the party's executive committee which sets fundraising thresholds for candidates to meet in order for their name to be placed on the ballot. Candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general must raise $50,000 in campaign donations from at least 300 individuals.

Those seeking a bid for governor or U.S Senate have to raise $100,000 from at least 1,000 individual donors. The guidelines are supported by party officials who say it's about rewarding the candidate who can raise money in an expensive political environment and have the best chance of winning.

Bill Feehan, member of the executive committee and chairman of the 3rd Congressional District GOP, said it would be "crazy" if the party didn't endorse and candidate.

"It's healthy for the political process that we get to know these people in a way that nobody really else would," said Feehan. "We are not just buying politicians on TV like a load of bread."

If the endorsement option was removed, Feehan said, the party would become "irrelevant" because there would be no incentive for candidates to come to party functions to win-over voters.

When the non-endorsement option was removed in 2009, Jefferson ordinally didn't originally support the decision but said it quickly proved to be useful in helping elect U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).

"When the party endorsed Ron Johnson, the party got behind his candidacy quickly and he was able to upset [Democratic incumbent] Russ Feingold," said Jefferson.

The GOP divide could have disastrous implications for the party who is supposed to have an edge heading into the fall with Democrats in control of congress and the White House. Historically, the political party in power underperforms in midterm elections -- momentum Republicans are counting on in order to reelect Sen. Johnson and unseat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

But right now, the party is heading into the fall midterms divided over who is the best candidate to beat Evers and the fundraising requirements needed in order to be considered for the party endorsement.

There are four Republicans aiming to capture voters' attention in the governor's race, former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Kevin Nicholson, State Rep. Tim Ramthun and newcomer Tim Michels.

Nicholson is calling to end the endorsement process completely, but has also asked the party to include his name along with his opponents on the ballot.

"We should be able to check a box that says no endorsement," Nicholson said in an interview prior to requesting his name be on the ballot. "I would say frankly anyone who is fighting against that is introducing unnecessary friction in our party."

Nicholson later clarified in an email to supporters he wants his name included on the ballot as an "insurance policy" if the party rejects a no endorsement option.

The party's executive committee determines the list of names included on the endorsement ballot. Jefferson said there is a pathway for Nicholson to speak at the convention, but didn't elaborate whether his name will be listed.

While the Republican base is divided, Jefferson said he doesn't think it will rip the party apart.

"These are the things that happen in years where the party is strong, where our chances for success in November are great," Jefferson said. "I don't really view this as a threat [or] a problem. I view this as a sign that we're having a very active election year."

Disunity in the Party

The endorsement process is not the only thing frustrating the party's grassroots. Some are calling on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to resign, accusing the longtime Republican leader for not doing enough to examine baseless claims the 2020 election was rigged.

Chris O'Brien, a member of the Jefferson County Republican Party, believes Vos is responsible for creating disunity within the party.

"I think Vos is starting to cause this division and maybe people around him should tell him to stop," O'Brien said. "This is what this resolution is doing."

A dozen county parties have signed “Toss Vos” resolutions demanding his resignation.

Vos is not fazed by the effort, but he continues to face pressure from the grassroots, members of his own party, and former President Donald Trump to do more to examine the 2020 election.

Vos has claimed, without evidence, that there was widespread fraud in the election despite reviews by a conservative group and the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau finding none.

In June, the Rochester Republican hired Michael Gableman, a retired state Supreme Court Justice, to investigate the 2020 election and believes the probe will reveal more evidence of wrongdoing.

Since the investigation launched, Gableman's contact has been extended and continues to drag out without many results. His work was supposed to be wrapped up by the end of this week, but Vos said it will go-on to allow Gableman to fight lawsuits challenging his subpoena powers.

It happened a day after Trump slammed Vos in a statement without naming him directly. Trump suggested Vos will face a successful primary opponent if he doesn't keep Gableman's investigation alive.

Jefferson said he supports the decision to allow Gableman to continue his investigation, noting many Republicans want their election concerns taken seriously.

"I think we have an issue where a lot of votes have not been handled properly," Jefferson said. "The process hasn't been followed the way it should have. There is unity among the party that they do not want to see the laws or election laws circumvented this time around."

New polling shows a majority of voters are unaware of Gableman's work. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed haven't heard enough to have an opinion, with 13% support how Gableman's handled the probe, while 27% disapprove, according to the latest Marquette University Law School Poll.

There's been no evidence of wide-spread fraud in Wisconsin and Joe Biden's win in the battleground state has been upheld by courts, reviews, and recounts.

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