When the campaigner-in-chief rallies another huge crowd in central Wisconsin tonight, he surely will ask Leah Vukmir to join him on stage. Vukmir, a 60-year-old Republican state senator, is running to unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin; President Trump is traveling to the Badger State to give Vukmir’s candidacy a boost.
“His energy is inspiring,” Vukmir told me Monday morning during her five-hour drive to campaign stops in northern Wisconsin. “One reason I want to go to Washington is to help the president.” She defeated businessman and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson in the state’s GOP primary in August.
The self-described “middle-class mom” is taking on Baldwin, a first-term Democrat, in what most political prognosticators consider to be an unlikely Republican pick-up in the Senate. A poll taken earlier this month showed Baldwin with a 10-point lead.
But Baldwin’s camp seems less confident than the pollsters: Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) stumped for Baldwin in the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee over the weekend. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) appeared with his Senate colleague at a college rally on Monday, and former President Obama will stop in Wisconsin on Friday. With several other Democratic senate seats in play, it might be a telltale sign that Democrats are worried Baldwin could be in trouble amid surging Republican enthusiasm for the November 6 election.
Could it be the Kavanaugh effect? “The mood and intensity have definitely changed,” among Republicans, Vukmir said, in the aftermath of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. “People saw what he went through. And Senator Baldwin decided 48 hours after Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced that she wouldn’t vote for him. She never met with him, either.”
One of the attorneys for Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s key accuser, was scheduled to host a fundraiser for Baldwin shortly after the accusations were made public. The event was canceled when media attention drew criticism from Vukmir and others.
In many ways, Wisconsin is a microcosm of the GOP’s shifting political power base and the Democratic Party’s waning appeal in the Midwest. Even though the state has been trending red for the past decade—Republicans have picked up 16 state legislative seats, two congressional seats and one Senate seat since 2008—Hillary Clinton famously did not campaign in Wisconsin in 2016 and she lost the state by 23,000 votes.
Wisconsin by far had the highest number of “pivot counties” in the nation—those are counties that twice voted for Barack Obama but went for Trump in 2016. (One headwind for Vukmir: Trump’s approval rating is underwater in Wisconsin, according to a September poll.)
Wisconsin’s influence in national Republican politics also is waning. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is retiring; Wisconsin native Reince Preibus, the former head of the Republican National Committee, only lasted a few months as Trump’s first chief of staff; and embattled Republican Governor Scott Walker is again fighting for his political life in a tight reelection race. Walker was an early favorite to win the 2016 Republican presidential primary, but dropped out in late 2015.
Vukmir and Walker are close political allies and friends; she succeeded him in the state assembly and, as a member of the state senate, Vukmir has been a reliable vote for Walker’s agenda.
“I’ve known Scott and his family for a long time,” Vukmir said. “A lot of what you see now—yelling at people in restaurants, the chaos—is reminiscent of what happened here in 2011.”
That’s when the Left launched a savage campaign to take down Walker after he introduced a controversial bill to repeal the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Large-scale protests engulfed the state capitol, lawmakers who supported the bill were threatened and an effort to remove Walker from office immediately began after he signed the legislation. The governor survived the recall election in 2012, but deep-pocketed unions and Democratic interest groups are supporting his opponent and would consider a Walker loss a huge victory.
Vukmir’s fate is closely tied to Walker’s; she also was targeted in the secret, corrupt “John Doe” investigation led by Democrats to oust the governor after their electoral gambit failed. (Sound familiar?) Thousands of her private emails were seized by state prosecutors in what she called “Wisconsin’s political war.”
She’s optimistic Walker will prevail again. “If we lose, everything we’ve done here will be unraveled,” Vukmir said. “Unemployment is below three percent, we now have a budget surplus. We can’t go back now.”
A major issue animating the race is illegal immigration. Vukmir’s father was a Greek immigrant who came to the United States in the 1950s, followed by more family members in the 1960s. Vukmir recalled visiting her extended family in Chicago, helping them learn English and study for their naturalization tests. “So that’s where I come from on the immigration issue,” she said. “They came here legally and we have to uphold the laws, we can’t let people get around the law.”
Vukmir said she started hearing from Wisconsinites about illegal immigration after she announced her candidacy 18 months ago. “People want border security, they want immigration reform. All over the state, people would tell me, we need to build the wall.”
Baldwin, on the other hand, has a strong record of supporting pro-illegal immigration policies, including amnesty. She also opposes building a wall along the southern border—although you wouldn’t know it by looking at her campaign website. There is no mention of immigration in her 12-point list of campaign issues.
But Baldwin won’t be able to duck the subject for much longer as thousands of people—mostly young men—from Central America and Mexico head for our country. Trump is capitalizing on the bad optics of the so-called caravan of illegals, threatening to withhold U.S. financial support to their home countries and calling the situation a national emergency that will require reinforcements for the Border Patrol, perhaps from the military.
“This is because Democrats have ignored it and don’t want to fix the problem,” Vukmir said. “They thrive on crisis and chaos.”
In addition to Vukmir, Republicans have fielded an impressive list of female Senate candidates this year: Martha McSally in Arizona, Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee, and Karin Housley in Minnesota are running strong campaigns. If they all win, the Senate would have an unprecedented number of Republican women in its ranks.
But Vukmir isn’t taking anything for granted. “I don’t want to look back and think, ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda.’ We are doing everything we can to win.”
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Photo Credit: WISN