GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Gov. Scott Walker said Friday that Republicans gathering for the annual state convention this weekend should be focused on ensuring he and five other Republicans survive June 5 recall elections, even as an intraparty fight over endorsing GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate election threatens to be a distraction.
The convention in Green Bay comes a little more than three weeks before the historic recalls in which Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican state senators could be tossed from office. A fourth GOP senator resigned before the recall, but an election to fill that seat will be held as well.
While the convention is largely focused on Walker – he spent Friday night at a private three-hour event mingling with an estimated 1,000 party faithful – Republican delegates were also voting Saturday afternoon on which of four U.S. Senate candidates to endorse. That intraparty fight threatens to overshadow Republicans' attempts to show unity for Walker and others as the recalls rapidly approach.
Walker said he was confident the focus would stay on the recall targets.
"The one unifier amongst everyone at this convention is the need to help me, Rebecca Kleefisch, and the Senate candidates win the recall elections," Walker said at a news conference before his meet and greet.
Walker and a host of other Republican officeholders, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, were scheduled to address convention-goers Saturday morning. The Senate endorsement vote was scheduled for the afternoon.
Winning the Republican Party endorsement – and access to its money, organization and contacts – requires a 60 percent vote from convention delegates. It would be a major boost to whoever gets it, especially lesser-known candidates.
The four Republicans running for U.S. Senate range from hedge fund investor Eric Hovde, who is mounting his first campaign for office, to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was elected governor four times and has been in public life for more than 40 years. Both men are millionaires.
Also running are state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who was a major force in passing Walker's collective bargaining proposal that motivated the recall, and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, who also ran in 2010 against Walker for governor but lost in the primary.
If no candidate can get the 60 percent required, the party will not issue an endorsement.
Johnson surprised the party establishment at the 2010 convention when he secured the endorsement at the convention, helping to fuel his victory in the fall over Democratic incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold.
Fitzgerald said Friday it's tough to get people to focus on the Senate race in the face of the recall.
"This is more of a Walker rally and state Senate rally than anything," Fitzgerald said. Former state Assembly Speaker John Gard said Republicans were "lasered in on the recall and the job that needs to be done."
Republican Party spokesman Ben Sparks said Republicans were unified heading into the convention and the endorsement fight won't be a distraction.
"Our primary focus is on the recall elections and even our U.S. Senate candidates understand this," he said. "We're confident all our Senate candidates are on the same page and defending Scott Walker is our top priority."
Walker was on the defensive at the start of the convention, forced to answer questions at a Friday night news conference about newly released footage showing him telling a supporter in January 2011 that he planned to use a "divide and conquer" strategy when taking on unions.
Walker said he was referring to protecting taxpayers from public union special interests so he could better address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. But Democratic opponents, including his challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, said it showed his true plan was to also go after private sector unions and make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, which would allow workers to not pay dues even if they are covered by a union contract.
The recalls were spurred by anger over the law pushed by Walker last year effectively ending collective bargaining rights for public workers.
In a reference to the new footage of Walker, Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski dubbed the weekend GOP gathering the "Divide and Conquer Convention." He said Republicans are paralyzed by their devotion to Walker and the Senate endorsement fight is driven by a "Republican lurch to the extreme fight."
Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin is the only major Democrat running for the Senate.
Earlier on Friday, Walker issued a statement saying any one of the four Republican candidates could beat Baldwin, but he hoped the endorsement process would be fair and respectful.
"All of our candidates and supporters know the importance of standing together and uniting to ensure we continue moving our state and country forward," Walker said.