MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker plans to tell Republican insiders at the state party convention this weekend that he's "ready" to run for a third term next year, which he is widely expected to do but which he won't officially announce until this summer.
The convention, which kicked off Friday at a Wisconsin Dells water park, brings together Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan and a host of Republican Senate hopefuls. Walker and Ryan are both slated to speak Saturday, along with other GOP office holders.
In excerpts of his speech released Friday, Walker edges ever closer to formally launching his re-election bid by citing recent GOP wins in the state, including President Donald Trump's victory.
"I'm ready to help lead Wisconsin forward for four more years," Walker says in the prepared remarks. "But I need your help."
In another sign of his all-but-certain candidacy, Walker announced Friday that he hired former state Republican Party director and longtime political aide Joe Fadness as his campaign manager.
Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Weathersby predicted Walker wouldn't win another term, with a statement that blamed him for "a sputtering state economy" and said he's failed so solve long-term transportation infrastructure problems.
Democrats are still seeking a top-tier challenger to Walker. They gather for their state convention in three weeks outside of Madison.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is also on the ballot next year. No Republican has officially declared their candidacy, but more than a half dozen potential challengers will be making the rounds at the Republican convention.
"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. And the conservation Restoration PAC announced Friday that it was spending nearly $500,000 on a statewide television ad attacking Baldwin, 18 months before the election.
The potential Baldwin challengers 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.
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.
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.
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