Leah Vukmir wins Wisconsin Republican Party endorsement over Kevin Nicholson in Senate race

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir won the endorsement of the state party Saturday, besting a better-financed opponent who's running as an outsider and close ally of President Donald Trump.

The nod for the state senator gives her candidacy a boost against challenger Kevin Nicholson, but it doesn't make her the nominee. That will be decided in the Aug. 14 primary, with the winner moving on to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The race is a top target for Republicans and spending by outside groups has already topped $11 million, more than twice as much as any other Senate race in the country.

Vukmir focused her candidacy on getting the endorsement, putting more than 61,000 miles on her car traveling the state to win over party delegates. A 15-year veteran of the state Legislature, she's close with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and has been an advocate for his agenda. Walker has not endorsed in the primary but his son works as an adviser on Vukmir's campaign.

Vukmir, a retired nurse, cast herself as a true "conservative fighter" who came from the party's grass roots and would stand with Trump, build a wall along the Mexico border, oppose abortion rights and strengthen the military. She highlighted her stand against public sector unions with Walker, saying she fought through "blood, sweat and tears" and death threats to push the Republican agenda.

"It's about standing your ground and fighting like the underdog for what you believe in," Vukmir said. "That's the problem with Washington, we don't have enough fighters."

Vukmir said Republicans could trust she would take the fight to Baldwin.

"We must never shy away from the battle," she said. "We must elect those with a proven track record. We need a proven fighter."

Nicholson all but conceded that Vukmir would win the endorsement, saying in the weeks leading up to the vote that Vukmir getting anything less than 85 percent backing would be a defeat. Vukmir won with 73 percent compared to 27 percent for Nicholson. It took 60 percent to get the endorsement.

Nicholson told delegates he will fight against a system that benefits insiders and the political class that doesn't serve citizens.

"I will fight against the Washington establishment and the practices of the Senate that stop progress," he said. "It will take outsiders to push back on this political aristocracy in Washington."

Nicholson is a political newcomer who has struggled to win over some skeptical GOP faithful due to his past as head of the national College Democrats in 2000. Nicholson said his experience serving as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then his current work as a business consultant, helped lead to his conversion to the Republican Party.

"I had to walk the path that I did to become the conservative I am today," he said.

Both Nicholson and Vukmir are supporters of Trump, but Nicholson has tried to tie himself more closely to the president. He initially touted an endorsement from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and the Great America PAC, but later cast it as an endorsement from Ed Rollins, an adviser to former President Ronald Reagan.

Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, also the former Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, spoke at the convention in support of Vukmir.

Nicholson's candidacy has benefited from third party groups that have spent $6 million supporting him and $3.1 million attacking Baldwin so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Vukmir has received just $935,000.

Nicholson has also led in fundraising — with $800,000 cash on hand as of April compared with about $650,000 for Vukmir. She raised nearly $600,000 the first three months of the year while Nicholson brought in more than $1 million.

The fundraising and spending disparity is what made winning the party endorsement — which opens Wisconsin Republican Party resources including field offices, staff, donor lists and other infrastructure — all the more important to Vukmir.


3 p.m.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Saturday he thinks President Donald Trump will be an asset to GOP candidates this fall in states like Wisconsin that he narrowly won, even as he warned fellow Republicans that a "blue wave" could wipe out advancements made during his presidency.

Ryan addressed about 600 people at the Wisconsin Republican convention, his final one after 20 years in office. The state's entire GOP congressional delegation, along with Gov. Scott Walker, honored Ryan, who received a standing ovation and chant from the audience of "Thank you, Paul!"

Ryan told delegates he was surprised on election night in 2016 when it became clear Trump was going to win Wisconsin — the first Republican to carry the state since 1984. Trump won by less than 1 point.

Ryan told reporters later he doesn't think controversies surrounding Trump are resonating with voters in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"The president is strong in these states," Ryan said. "He's an asset. ... Whether I'm running around southern Wisconsin or America, nobody is talking about Stormy Daniels. Nobody is talking about Russia. They're talking about their lives and their problems. They're talking about their communities, they're talking about jobs, they're talking about the economy, they're talking about national security."

Ryan defended his and the Republican record in Congress, including the tax overhaul law he championed, saying "we have gotten a ton of things done."

But he, like other Republicans speaking at the convention before him, warned it could all be quickly be undone.

"The blue wave, as they say it, they want to take it all away," Ryan cautioned.

He also reminisced about his career, telling reporters after his convention speech "I never thought I'd be here in the first place. I wanted to be an economist."

Walker presented Ryan with a personalized Green Bay Packers jersey with a number "1'' on the back. That is the number of Ryan's southeastern Wisconsin congressional district.

Ryan has not endorsed anyone in the race to replace him, saying he didn't know if he would. Candidates have until June 1 to file.


12 p.m.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson says he wouldn't have said that Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is on "Team Terrorists" like a GOP candidate for Senate did.

Johnson was asked Saturday about a press release and tweet earlier this week from state Sen. Leah Vukmir. In it, Vukmir placed an image of Baldwin alongside the man accused of planning the 9-11 terrorist attacks and labeled them "Team Terrorists."

Vukmir has defended the characterization because Baldwin has not said whether she supports CIA director nominee Gina Haspel.

Johnson says he would not have said that, but he stopped short of calling for Vukmir to apologize. He says that is up to her.

Vukmir faces Republican Kevin Nicholson in the Aug. 14 primary, with the winner taking on Baldwin.


11 a.m.

Gov. Scott Walker is telling Republican to "wake up" and the upcoming fall election is "going to be tougher than any we've faced so far."

Walker issued the warnings Saturday at the Wisconsin state party convention.

He and a host of other Republicans are warning party activists that GOP policies enacted in recent years are in jeopardy if Democrats win in November.

Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel says "If there's a blue wave coming, our conservative reforms will be among the first thing to go."

Walker is running for a third term and Schimel is seeking a second. There are more than a dozen Democrats seeking the nomination to take on Walker.

He says if a Democrat wins, Republicans are also likely to lose majorities in the state Legislature.


10 a.m.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel says his Democratic opponent is a "liberal activist" who would advance the Hillary Clinton agenda.

Schimel faces Democrat Josh Kaul in November. Schimel told Republicans at the state party convention on Saturday that Kaul would be a "liberal activist" who would undo laws he doesn't agree with.

Schimel says given the GOP record in Wisconsin "this year should be a walk off home run for us."

But he warned that "up and down the ballot there are big challenges ahead of us."

Schimel says as attorney general he has delivered on every promise he made in the 2014 campaign, including fighting opioids and creating a stable regulatory environment for employers, farmers and manufacturers.


9:32 a.m.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker says he's confident Republicans will maintain their majority in the Assembly, despite concerns over a "blue wave."

Vos said at Saturday's Republican Party convention that "there will be no waves crashing in Wisconsin."

Vos says he is confident voters will reject Democrats once they learn what they want to do.

Vos says Democrats will raise taxes, increase the size of government, fund Planned Parenthood, eliminate school choice and repeal the Act 10 collective bargaining law.

Other speakers at the convention have struck a cautionary tone, saying Democrats are more energized and could undo Republican policies with wins in November.


12:01 a.m.

House Speaker Paul Ryan is coming to bid farewell.

Gov. Scott Walker is asking for another vote.

And the two Republicans running for U.S. Senate are trying to win an endorsement from the party faithful.

Republican activists across the state are gathering Saturday for the annual GOP convention in Milwaukee.

It comes as Ryan is ending his 20-year career in Congress and Walker is running for a third term in November.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir and former Marine Kevin Nicholson are seeking the state party endorsement as they run for a chance to take on Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

The convention will feature speeches from all of them, as well as from other state and federal office holders.

The Democratic convention is in three weeks in Oshkosh.

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