Kevin Nicholson is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who neither the Wisconsin GOP chieftains nor the Democratic incumbent wants to win. But the political novice—a decorated Marine combat veteran—embraces his role as the establishment party-crasher trying to unseat Senator Tammy Baldwin and give Republicans a surprise pickup in the Badger State.
“We are in an extremely good position to win,” Nicholson told me from the campaign trail on Saturday. “I would not want to trade places with either one of my opponents in the primary or the general election right now. They are the establishment. But voters know that only someone from outside the political class can bring change.”
On Tuesday, Nicholson faces State Senator Leah Vukmir in the state’s primary election. Vukmir has endorsements from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the Wisconsin Republican Party, and several Republican lawmakers. But recent polls show a tight race.
Nicholson, 40, spent the weekend traveling across the state—from Green Bay to Milwaukee to Sheboygan—trying to convince Republican voters to choose him on Tuesday.
“I feel good about our support and turnout in the northern part of the state and the rural areas,” he said. That is the same region that went heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, making Trump the first Republican since 1984 to win that state and snatch away critical electoral votes from Hillary Clinton.
Nicholson’s message is centered on policies and not on his opponent. The businessman and father of three young children has an impassioned, rapid-fire way of explaining why he decided to run for office for the first time (he apologized to me for talking too fast) and why the policies he now advocates policies are “best for everyone.”
The Bronze-star Marine saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, so national security is a top priority for him. Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are backing Nicholson; he’s also won endorsements from the Club For Growth and the Wisconsin Right to Life PAC. The group FreedomWorks is also supporting Nicholson; the grassroots organization is highly critical of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Although little daylight exists between Nicholson and Vukmir on the issues, should Vukmir win she would be indebted to a Republican establishment—including Paul Ryan—that is often viewed as hostile to President Trump.
Ryan has been rebuked by Democrats and the media for not taking a tougher stance against the president, but it’s clear the departing speaker still has plenty of criticism of Trump’s style and approach. In a lengthy New York Times magazine profile last week, Ryan suggested he has helped the president avert unnamed crises. “I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy,” he told the magazine. Ryan remains a staunch defender of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s presidential campaign, a probe with waning support from rank-and-file Republicans, and was highly critical of Trump’s Helsinki press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, calling it “really bad.”
Nicholson, in contrast to this kind of second-guessing, already is looking ahead to the November contest and how to persuade Wisconsinites to oust first-termer Baldwin. He thinks his political conversion from a college Democratic Party leader to a Trump-style Republican will help him convince Democrats to vote for him.
“Everything from the Democratic Party right now is about race, class, gender, and ethnicity,” he explained. “There are no plans from Democrats about how to make this country safer or more prosperous. Democrats are doing nothing for job growth. Obama smirked at us for eight years as he imposed new regulations on businesses and signed off on the Iran Deal. But we need to explain to people what our ideals are and say, ‘here is why I am a conservative.’”
Nicholson is extending his outreach to minority voters in Milwaukee and Madison. “We need to start pulling people in and keep it on the issues.”
That kind of bold messaging and unconventional turnout strategy are exactly what the Baldwin campaign fears, which is why the senator is already spending millions in attack ads against Nicholson. (She is running unopposed.) PolitiFact ranked Baldwin’s ad as “mostly false.” In a head-to-head matchup with Baldwin, Nicholson polls better than his primary opponent. The senator only has a 41 percent approval rating and the state is often cited as a potential, albeit longshot, pickup for Republicans.
And Baldwin’s campaign has made it clear they would prefer Vukmir, who is close with embattled Governor Scott Walker, also on the ballot in November.
“For Tammy’s camp, she probably would rather take on someone who’s close to Walker,” a GOP operative told Vox last week. “She can be the Walker slayer. She can take out her Senate opponent and Scott Walker if things go really well.” And while both Nicholson and Vukmir are vying to win over Trump supporters, a recent video of Vukmir criticizing Trump in March 2016 is undermining her claim that she’s “always” been with the president.
“You don’t have to lie about it,” Nicholson said of Vukmir’s insistence she’s been with Trump all along. “That’s what makes people hate politicians.”
It’s unclear whether Trump will weigh in on the race today or Tuesday. Nicholson admits his team is “in touch” with the White House, although he has not asked for an endorsement. But his message is undoubtedly Trumpian.
“Ninety percent of people realize our system is nonfunctioning,” Nicholson said. “Only an outsider can bring change. And it’s going to take an outsider to beat Baldwin.”
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