For a brief time not long ago, Wisconsin’s political leadership was the power center of the national Republican Party: In 2016, Governor Scott Walker ran for president; Rep. Paul Ryan was the Speaker of the House; and Reince Priebus was the head of the Republican National Committee who then became Donald Trump’s first chief of staff. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate since 1984 to win the Badger State.
But the state’s hold on the GOP since has loosened. Ryan is retiring from Congress and Priebus only lasted six months at the White House. Walker is running for reelection in what looks to be a close race. And the Republican establishment’s chosen candidate in the August 14 U.S. Senate primary—State Sen. Leah Vukmir—is in a tight battle against a political newcomer who once was a Democrat.
Kevin Nicholson, 40, is an impressive candidate. A father of three, Nicholson is a decorated Marine combat officer who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. After his service, he earned an MBA from Dartmouth and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. His war experience and business education changed him from a Democrat to a Republican.
“I’m a conservative today not because I was born one, but because of the experience I earned as a Marine in combat, my experience as a husband and father, my choice to be a Christian, the schools I chose to attend and the decision to pursue the career that I have,” he told the Washington Post in February. That apparently did not sit well with Nicholson’s Democratic parents, who last year donated the maximum amount to his prospective general election opponent, incumbent U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, after he announced his candidacy.
He also is not very popular with the state’s Republican power players. Ryan and several of his Wisconsin congressional colleagues have endorsed Vukmir. After she won the state party’s endorsement with 75 percent of the vote, Vukmir’s campaign manager said Nicholson should “respect the will of the people that have delivered Gov. Walker and Sen. [Ron] Johnson into office time and time again, and leave the race.”
When audio surfaced of Nicholson lightly criticizing Ryan for not endorsing Trump in the presidential election and having a “light footprint” in the state, Vukmir’s campaign (ridiculously) demanded an apology. Not exactly a winning strategy in a climate where voters are hostile to the commands of the political ruling class.
Recent polls suggest the race is neck-and-neck. An NBC News/Marist poll taken in late July showed Nicholson with a 10-point lead over Vukmir, with one-third of voters undecided. An Emerson College poll shows the race between the two Republicans is in a dead heat. But Nicholson seems to have an edge over Vukmir in a potential race against Baldwin.
Of course, there is really only one candidate on the ballot in 2018: Donald Trump. The president earns high marks from Republican voters on how he’s handling his job: 86 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump. Both Nicholson and Vukmir are campaigning on a pro-Trump platform; but a recently released video of Vukmir making derogatory comments about the president when he was a candidate is undermining her claim to the Trump mantle.
During a panel discussion led by virulent anti-Trumper Charlie Sykes in March 2016, Vukmir said Trump is “offensive to everyone. He’s offensive to women. He’s offensive to men. He’s offensive to little people. He’s offensive to fat people. He’s offensive to everyone, and I—he offends everyone.” She then held her nose and suggested that’s what Republicans would have to do to vote for Trump if he won the nomination and faced Hillary Clinton.
Since the video was released, Vukmir has been trying to burnish her pro-Trump credentials, reminding voters that she “went to bat” for Trump in the darkest hours of the 2016 election. “I want President Trump to succeed,” she told Fox Business News anchor Stuart Varney in an interview last month. “When he succeeds, America succeeds, and he is succeeding, he is winning.”
There is little daylight between the two on issues: Both support gun rights, a wall along the southern border and less government spending. Vukmir is backed by the National Rifle Association, while Nicholson earned the endorsement of the Wisconsin Right to Life organization. In its weekend endorsement of Nicholson, the Kenosha News said the political newcomer is the “stronger candidate moving forward with an on-point message of a political ‘outsider’ wanting to solve problems or get thrown out.”
The critical inch for either candidate would be a plug by the president. “If either of these folks got a Trump endorsement, it would be game over,” NBC News political director Chuck Todd said on a Wisconsin TV station over the weekend. “In a Republican primary right now, in the year 2018, in the Trump era and his version of Republican politics, it is as good as gold.”
The Wisconsin Senate seat is a longshot pickup opportunity for Republicans in November. (Cook Political Report lists the election as “likely Democratic.”) The question for Wisconsin Republicans is who will have a better shot at defeating Tammy Baldwin: A conservative candidate with the endorsement of the state’s reigning—but fading—political power structure or a legitimate outsider untethered to the establishment GOP that continues to exhibit hostility to Donald Trump? Wisconsinites have a week left to decide.
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