As state GOP gathers in Green Bay, Donald Trump remains the elephant in the room

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (right), Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (left), and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, will all be speaking at this weekend's state GOP convention in Green Bay.

Scott Bauer

Wisconsin Republicans are gathering in Green Bay this weekend to rally around their U.S. Senate, congressional and legislative candidates, but the elephant in the room will be the name at the top of their ticket in November.

In a press release on Thursday, the state party announced the convention will focus on re-electing Sen. Ron Johnson and “delivering Wisconsin’s electoral votes to a Republican Presidential nominee” without mentioning presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump by name.

The omission is an indication the party is keeping its focus on state races and won’t be lining up behind the brash billionaire anytime soon, Republican strategist Brian Fraley said.

“There would have been a higher level of excitement about this convention if Trump had not done so well in the weeks following the Wisconsin primary,” Fraley said. “This is something the state party is going to have to deal with and state parties across the country are going to have to deal with to maintain a level of enthusiasm for down-ticket races.”

Asked whether Thursday’s press release was meant to downplay Trump’s place on the ticket, state GOP spokesman Pat Garrett referred to a recent WisPolitics.com interview with GOP Chairman Brad Courtney, in which he said he’ll back Trump as the nominee and that other Republicans will come around once they consider the alternative.

GOP elected officials have expressed a range of reactions to Trump becoming the presumptive nominee, from Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, withdrawing as an alternate to the Republican National Convention because of his lack of enthusiasm for the nominee, to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, embracing the New York real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity as a populist who could help win legislative races.

Republican strategist Mark Graul said a lot of Wisconsin Republicans are taking their cue from U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville, who last week said he wasn’t ready to endorse Trump and this week said he would step down as Republican National Convention chairman if Trump wanted.

Ryan and Trump met privately with RNC chairman Reince Priebus of Kenosha on Thursday in Washington, after which they announced they had a few differences, but it was critical for Republicans to unify.

“I think it’s fair to say that people are still getting used to Trump being the nominee,” Graul said, noting Sen. Ted Cruz soundly defeated Trump here before Trump’s win in Indiana knocked the Texas senator out of the race.

“I’m sure there will be lots of discussion about” Trump’s candidacy, Graul added. “While we all know the name and some stuff about him, that’s evolving on their part. A lot of us are waiting to see how that plays out.”

Graul said it remains to be seen whether Trump will target Wisconsin during the general election, and the state party will focus on the U.S. Senate race and congressional races regardless. Fraley said there’s no chance Trump wins Wisconsin in November because of the strength of the #NeverTrump movement and how soundly he was rejected here in the primary, so it’s unlikely he’ll visit the state before November.

Jim Miller, chairman of the 7th Congressional District GOP and an RNC delegate, said the party has gone into its state convention with some dissident voices in the past — in 2012 there were libertarians still seeking support for Ron Paul’s candidacy after Mitt Romney clinched the nomination — but nothing like this year’s divide.

“I’ve spoken at a few Lincoln Day dinners and our message has been we’re going to have to unify,” Miller said. “I suspect that will be the theme — unify.”

The convention will feature speeches Saturday by Johnson, Gov. Scott Walker — who at this time last year, a month before Trump joined the race, was polling nationally among the top three presidential contenders — Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Attorney General Brad Schimel, Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, of Rochester, and the state’s five GOP members of Congress.

Ryan will be delivering the keynote address at a dinner Saturday night, but his remarks won’t be open to the press.

The three-day event, which is expected to draw 800 to 1,000 attendees, also will feature training sessions, panels and a leadership seminar for grassroots activists.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.