MILWAUKEE — An enthusiastic Republican Party on Saturday overwhelmingly endorsed Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker in the party's contested gubernatorial primary, the first time in more than 30 years it has made such a move.
Walker, who won 91.3 percent of the vote, received a standing ovation as he took the stage at the Frontier Airlines Center and thanked the crowd for their support.
"There are some who would like to dismiss the people in this room as elite political insiders, nothing like the people who make up the Wisconsin electorate," he said. "But we know better. This convention hall has the same grass-roots activists who turned out for the tea party rallies and so-called health care learning sessions. You are here because you care enough to get involved."
First endorsement since 1978
More than 1,600 party members made it to Milwaukee for what has become a record-setting 2010 Republican Party convention. And while most made the trip in support of local candidates, Walker's nomination has been the biggest story.
Not since 1978 has the Republican Party endorsed a candidate for governor during a contested primary, a move that party officials said was testament to Walker's popularity among members.
Earlier this month, Walker's main opponent, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his name from consideration for the nomination. He made the move after polling party members to gauge support.
On Saturday, Neumann addressed the party and promised that if he lost the primary in September, he would support the winner.
"The nominee of the Republican Party will be endorsed by myself," he said.
For weeks, the prospect of Walker's endorsement has been the source of controversy. Neumann said it was wrong for the party to back a candidate in such a hotly contested primary. Most polls have Neumann and Walker in a tight race for the nomination and the right to face the likely Democratic nominee, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Outside the convention, a group of Neumann supporters protested the event, chanting, "Let the people vote!"
"We just want the people in the party to know we exist," said Gay Leigh Mundy, 61, a retired Army captain from Wauwatosa. "How important is an endorsement if the people back Neumann?"
But state Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has said that as a political party the GOP has the right to endorse candidates. And Priebus said he is not worried this endorsement will have the same outcome as the one that took place in 1978.
That year, the party endorsed U.S. Rep. Robert Kasten of Milwaukee during the convention. But Lee Dreyfus, a newcomer who had only recently joined the party, defeated Kasten in the primary. His victory led Republican Party leaders to stop the practice of endorsing gubernatorial candidates in contested primaries.
The Republican endorsement comes with money and staff resources, including state and national donor lists and help with voter turnout efforts. It is not, however, needed to win the primary.
People scared, Walker says
Walker's speech Saturday touched on his history of overcoming hard odds and promised the party a return to power and a focus on smaller government, job creation and lower taxes.
"The people of Wisconsin are scared. Scared about the economy," he said. "They're scared about their jobs, about their spouse's job. Well, I got a message for them. Come Nov. 2, they don't have to be scared anymore. Help is on the way."
Among his plans, Walker said he would work to strengthen the state's transportation system, but would oppose the $810 million high-speed rail that is slated to run from Milwaukee to Madison.
"We're going to take those big-government liberals and load them up on a train and run them out of town," Walker said.
Walker also said he would work to oppose President Barack Obama's health care program and would support legislation like Arizona's illegal immigration law.
"This governor and his liberal allies in Madison are taking this state in the wrong direction," Walker said. "It is time to take back our government. It is time to put government back on the side of the people."
After three votes Saturday, the party was unable to endorse a candidate for lieutenant governor. Four candidates were vying for the honor: State Rep. Brett Davis, Superior Mayor Dave Ross, Lake Geneva businessman Ben Collins and former Milwaukee broadcaster Rebecca Kleefisch.