Wisconsin Republicans, eager to extend their recent electoral success but frustrated by a U.S. Senate they view as blocking President Donald Trump’s agenda, want to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018.
A year before the general election, businessman Kevin Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir are running full-tilt for the GOP nomination.
The race pits a Democrat-turned-Republican outsider against an outsider-turned-insider Republican.
At least one other potential candidate, Madison businessman Eric Hovde, is weighing a bid. The filing deadline is June 1, with a primary scheduled for Aug. 14 and the general election Nov. 6.
Major policy differences between Nicholson and Vukmir have yet to emerge, and both are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump. That puts the candidates’ starkly different personal biographies at the fore.
Nicholson, of Delafield, is emphasizing his political newcomer status and his military and private-sector experience. If elected, he pledges to limit his Senate service to two terms. Others who billed themselves as conservative outsiders, such as Trump and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, fared well in 2016, he noted. Johnson was a businessman with no political experience before he first ran for Senate in 2010.
Voters want “to put people with outside experience into politics now — because they want that perspective to be injected into Washington,” Nicholson said.
A former president of the College Democrats of America, Nicholson says his life experience, including serving as a U.S. Marine Corps officer in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made him a conservative Republican.
Despite being a newcomer, Nicholson won early support in the race, including a $3.5 million stake for a pro-Nicholson super PAC from Illinois GOP super-donor Richard Uihlein. Another endorsement, from a group tied to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, has given Nicholson both support and skepticism from fellow Republicans.
Vukmir, R-Brookfield, got into politics as an education activist in the 1990s, seeking to push her state and party in a more conservative direction. Elected to the Legislature in 2002, she has done that, while helping enact some of Gov. Scott Walker’s most sweeping laws.
Vukmir’s legislative record and credibility in the world of conservative activism made her beloved by the GOP grassroots and conservative talk radio in southeastern Wisconsin.
She also has her own wealthy and influential backers, including Afton roofing magnate and Republican donor Diane Hendricks and former Bradley Foundation Chairman Michael Grebe. She also is a board member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
GOP primary voters are “looking for someone with a proven conservative track record,” Vukmir said.
“Kevin is going to have to make that case to the voters. We know a lot about his record as a Democrat, but not as a conservative,” Vukmir said. “I’ve established myself with a proven record that voters can trust.”
Both Vukmir and Nicholson have cast themselves as strong allies of Trump despite his overall unpopularity. Polls show Trump, while despised by Democrats and disliked by a majority of independent voters, continues to be viewed favorably by Republicans.
So far, conservative activists have laid blame on the GOP Congress — not Trump — for failure on priorities such as repealing Obamacare, said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin.
“People are frustrated and surprised there hasn’t been more traction on these things we’ve been talking about for quite a while,” Graul said.
Something that could help break the stalemate is flipping Wisconsin’s Democrat-held U.S. Senate seat and bolstering the Republicans’ Senate majority, said Matt Batzel, who directs the conservative grassroots training group American Majority.
Batzel said any Republican nominee capable of winning a general election must court the voters most solidly in Trump’s corner.
“Anyone who’s going to win this state has to put together a coalition,” Batzel said. “Pro-Trump Republican voters are a key part of that.”
Nicholson has emphasized he voted for Trump in the presidential primary as well as the general election.
Vukmir initially endorsed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in last year’s primary. When Rubio dropped out, Vukmir said she voted for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Jumping on board
But Vukmir said she believes her support of Trump in the general election helped him carry Wisconsin, which had not swung Republican since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1984.
Vukmir, along with other widely known conservative women from southeast Wisconsin, cut an ad on Trump’s behalf that aired in the campaign’s closing days.
She said it helped sell many conservatives on Trump in southeastern Wisconsin, where Trump was viewed skeptically by some suburban Republicans.
“People kept coming up to all of us who were in that ad and said: ‘You know, I was going to stay home, but because of you, I’m going out to vote.’ So we know that it made a difference,” Vukmir said.
The endorsement from the Bannon-linked Great America PAC assured Nicholson not just financial support but the backing of a top Trump ally.
Yet Bannon’s presence makes some conservatives uneasy. They balk at his views on issues such as global trade and foreign policy, as well as his eagerness to take on members of the GOP establishment, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
‘I’m a Marine — I lead’
Nicholson, if elected, has said he’d support a new Senate Republican leader to replace McConnell.
Nicholson’s embrace of Bannon has brought him some criticism recently on talk radio programs that are influential in Milwaukee-area conservative circles. Radio host Mark Belling, in a recent interview with Vukmir, said Nicholson has been “spending his time giving Steve Bannon a shoeshine with his tongue.”
Belling added: “Kevin is going to have to decide if he’s simply going to be Steve Bannon’s tool or he’s going to run as an individual candidate, as his own man.”
Nicholson, speaking to the State Journal, brushed aside Belling’s suggestion.
“I don’t cater to people. I’m a Marine — I lead,” Nicholson said. “I’d sooner cut off my tongue than give someone a shoeshine with it.”
Bannon is chairman of the conservative news website Breitbart, which he called “the platform for the alt-right.” The loosely defined movement sprung up in the 2016 campaign and includes some white nationalists and white supremacists.
Asked if he supports the alt-right movement or views it as part of his electoral coalition, Nicholson said, “I don’t even know what that phrase means — I’m not even going to discuss that.”
Pressed further, Nicholson said “my vision for the future of this country is one where black, white, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, all have an opportunity to capitalize on their opportunities and their talents.”
Vukmir has sought to frame Nicholson as the favorite of national groups and herself as the choice of Republicans in Wisconsin.
On Thursday, Vukmir rolled out a list of more than 100 endorsements from state lawmakers, local and business leaders and activists, including the majority leader of the state Senate, Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
Hovde a wild card
Hovde, who ran in the GOP U.S. Senate primary in 2012, losing to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, did not respond to State Journal inquiries last week about his 2018 plans.
As a potential self-funder of his campaign, Hovde may be on a different timeline than Vukmir or Nicholson.
But Graul said the window for Hovde to enter the race is closing.
“People have chosen sides quite a bit — there’s not a lot of free agents out there,” Graul said. “A path for him is getting harder to see.”