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U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is urging the weaker of the two Republican Senate candidates to exit the race sometime after the upcoming state GOP convention.

The convention will be held in Milwaukee this weekend.

Its marquee event will be a vote by GOP delegates on whether to endorse Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, or Kevin Nicholson, a Delafield management consultant and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two are seeking the Republican nod to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November.

Johnson, speaking to WISN-AM Thursday, said whichever candidate is on weaker footing after the convention should withdraw to strengthen the party’s chances to oust Baldwin.

“After this convention, considering how it is, I’m hoping that somebody realizes that one person, one or the other, has got the clear shot and has the better chance of winning, and the other one withdraws voluntarily,” Johnson said.

It appears unlikely that Vukmir or Nicholson will exit the race soon. Both are well-funded, have secured key endorsements and appear positioned to battle until the Aug. 14 primary.

Still, Johnson’s remarks are his strongest yet to urge Nicholson and Vukmir, who have sparred harshly during the primary, to make peace.

Vukmir has said Nicholson, the former national president of the College Democrats, must prove his conservative track record. Her supporters have questioned the authenticity of Nicholson’s political conversion to conservatism.

Nicholson, in turn, has accused Vukmir of not respecting his military service. He has dismissed the questions about his past as coming from political “insiders” who he says are threatened by an outsider such as himself.

Johnson’s campaign sought to downplay his comments to WISN-AM Thursday, issuing a statement saying “Sen. Johnson’s position is the same as it always has been.” Johnson spokesman Ben Voelkel emphasized that the senator’s focus is not solely on the potential winner of the party endorsement.

“A possible convention endorsement is one of many factors in determining who is the strongest candidate to take on Sen. Baldwin,” Voelkel said.


Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.