Speaker Ryan, Gov. Walker, GOP Senate hopefuls gathering for convention

MADISON — House Speaker Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and a host of Republican Senate hopefuls are gathering this weekend at a Wisconsin Dells water park for the annual Wisconsin GOP convention.

The meeting began Friday and will be highlighted by speeches on Saturday by a host of office holders, including Walker and Ryan. A half-dozen or more possible Republican Senate candidates will also be making the rounds.

No one has officially declared they are running to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin next year. But several are taking steps in that direction, and the convention gives them a chance to introduce themselves to the same people who a year from now will be voting on whether to extend an official Republican Party endorsement.

"The expectation will be to see all of them and I expect they all will be there," said Brian Westrate, the 3rd Congressional District Republican Party chairman.

Several potential candidates have already been appearing at GOP dinners and other events for months.

"Senate candidates who are smart, if they haven't started already, they are reaching out at the county level across the state," said Chris Lato, who worked on Mark Neumann's failed Senate bid in 2012. "They should be ready to press the flesh across the state and certainly at convention."

The potential candidates won't have any official role at the convention. None of them have booths reserved and speaking slots go only to current office holders. One of them, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, has been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate, although it's widely expected that she will stick with Walker on his re-election bid next year.

Walker announced Friday that Joe Fadness, a longtime aide and Republican Party operative, would be his campaign manager for the likely run which he's not going to formally announce until this summer. Walker was expected to use his convention speech to outline the case for his seeking a third term.

Office holders considering a Senate run include state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, state Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. Fitzgerald is not attending the convention due to his son's college graduation. Clarke said this week in an interview on Fox Business that a Senate run was "highly unlikely."

Kooyenga said he will be at the convention, but he remains focused on passage of the state budget and won't make a decision on whether to launch a Senate bid until later in the summer.

Other possible candidates are former Marine Kevin Nicholson and Nicole Schneider, a research officer for Green Bay Area Catholic Education, Inc., and a member of the Schneider National Trucking family. Nicholson plans to be at the convention and Schneider did not return messages seeking comment.

Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Weathersby said Nicholson and Schneider "will have a tough time persuading Wisconsin Republicans that they're not just political opportunists."

Schneider has faced questions from some conservatives about her GOP bona fides given social media posts she's made that were supportive of Democrats and critical of Republican candidates. And Nicholson is the former national president of the College Democrats of America in 2000 and who voted as a Democrat as recently as 2008.

Eric Hovde, a millionaire Madison businessman who ran for Senate in 2012, said he plans to spend half a day at the convention but won't decide whether he'll be a candidate again in 2018 until late summer or early fall.