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GOP warned UW-Whitewater College Republican about dissing Ron Johnson
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Sands, right, with Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele.
Sands, right, with Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele.

Mitch Sands is a nice young man who happens to be a Republican. More than that, he favors a particular GOP candidate, Watertown businessman Dave Westlake, in the race for U.S. Senate, against Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold.

A junior majoring in political science, Sands is chair of the College Republicans chapter at the UW-Whitewater. He says that on Sunday, July 19, he had an encounter with the presumed frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Ron Johnson, at an event in Walworth County.

"I asked him, 'What makes you more qualified than Dave Westlake?'" Sands recalls. He says Johnson responded by saying that he had given a copy of his speech at a Tea Party rally to Milwaukee radio guy Charlie Sykes, who was so impressed he read it on the air. Next thing you know, state Republicans gave Johnson the nod at their convention.

"It was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard," says Sands, 20, of this answer. He admits he let Johnson know it, responding, "That's why you're more qualified?"

The two talked some more, during this meeting and later that day. In the end, Sands says Johnson "shook my hand and walked away," admitting he wasn't going to win him over. "He blew me off."

Sands, on reflection, admits that's a harsh reaction, and that a busy candidate is entitled to politely disengage from an apparently unproductive encounter. But Sands came away unimpressed with Johnson, and told as much to Westlake when next they talked.

Westlake mentioned the encounter to John "Sly" Slyvester, the estimable host of "Sly in the Morning" on WTDY, who tried to arrange for Sands to come on his program. Sands agreed, but the appearance never happened.

Sands explains that he ran into a state Republican Party official and mentioned his planned radio appearance. He says the official told him not to do it, and later followed up with a text message to this effect. Sands also began hearing from others in the party warning him not to go through with the appearance.

This, too, got reported back to the Westlake campaign. On July 27, Westlake campaign manager Ashley Schultz informed WTDY by email: "Mitch ... mentioned to someone that he was going to try and go on the air to talk about [his encounter with Johnson]. The GOP found out and ... told him that he cannot speak out against an endorsed candidate. I believe Mitch still wants to speak, though."

Sands says this is a bit overstated. "They didn't tell me I can't [speak out against Johnson]. They told he that I shouldn't."

The text message, from the state Republican Party official, which Sands forwarded without including the sender's name, says the station has an agenda to keep Feingold in office: "I'm not saying don't do the show I'm saying keep it POSITIVE."

The text message continues: "And, most importantly, you going on a radio show and bashing a fellow Republican is bad for YOU could tank whatever you're looking to do in the future. People are vindictive. You have to be careful."

But Sands says he's decided to go public with his experience, saying "My loyalty to Dave [Westlake] is much more than it is to the party." But he stresses that he is speaking only for himself, and not for his College Republicans chapter.

Sands finds it objectionable that the party would try to discourage him from talking about why one candidate is better than another, given that voters have yet to decide who will get the nomination.

As for whether it's poor form for him to criticize Johnson, the choice of party leaders, he has this to say: "Endorse a better candidate and I won't have to bash him."

Andrew Welhouse, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, notes there is nothing unusual about a political party wanting to minimize infighting.

"The Republican Party of Wisconsin does encourage candidates and their supporters to stay positive about fellow Republican candidates," he says. "There's more to be gained by remembering where the real battle is. Bashing fellow Republicans doesn't help."

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