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Medical marijuana, criminal justice among few issue divides for GOP hopefuls in US Senate primary

Medical marijuana, criminal justice among few issue divides for GOP hopefuls in US Senate primary

From the Election 2018: What you need to know before voting in Tuesday's primary series
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It’s tough to find daylight between Republicans Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson in how they’d vote as a U.S. senator.

Vukmir, a Brookfield state senator, and Nicholson, a Delafield management consultant, largely agree with each other — and most congressional Republicans — on a range of key issues, including abortion, tax cuts, health care, guns, tariffs and most aspects of immigration.

Drug policy and criminal justice issues are among the few contrasts. Nicholson favors legalizing marijuana for medical use and is open to changing how non-violent criminals are sentenced to, and serve in, prison.

In the state Legislature, Vukmir staunchly opposed medical marijuana and worked to stiffen some sentencing requirements.

Nicholson has been more specific in raising potential changes to Social Security for Americans not at or near retirement age.

The candidates also differed in their responses to President Donald Trump’s former policy of separating migrant families caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nicholson and Vukmir meet in the Aug. 14 GOP primary election; the winner advances to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison, in November.

Criminal justice

Nicholson supports the First Step Act, a bill that would offer “low-risk” inmates early release options in exchange for completing anti-recidivism programs.

Nicholson also told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview that “we have to take a hard look at sentencing for non-violent offenders — and I’m being very specific here, non-violent offenders, non-drug dealers — and say: ‘What can we do to quickly rehabilitate people?’ “

“The goal is not to have people behind bars. The goal is to have a functioning society that encourages people to do the right thing,” Nicholson added.

Nicholson said he supports legalizing medical marijuana “as prescribed by a doctor” but opposes legalizing it for recreational use.

Vukmir is among the staunchest foes in the Wisconsin Legislature of marijuana legalization, including for medical use.

Vukmir’s campaign told Milwaukee talk radio host Mark Belling she “would likely have concerns with” the First Step Act. In the state Senate she led efforts to stiffen sentencing requirements for violent offenders.


Both Nicholson and Vukmir stress immigration changes must start with building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and halting illegal immigration.

After that, Nicholson and Vukmir have said a “path” or “process” toward legalization for so-called Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, should be part of a second-phase immigration overhaul.

The candidates had different responses to the former Trump administration policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The controversy exploded in June, and the administration soon reversed course to end the policy.

Just after the controversy broke, Nicholson said he backed a proposal from Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, to halt the separations of asylum-seeking families by detaining them together.

Asked about the separations at the time by WISN-TV, Vukmir said, “We are a nation of laws and we have to stand up and uphold those laws.”

Vukmir later said “of course families shouldn’t be separated” but didn’t say what changes, if any, she supported to halt the practice.


Both Nicholson and Vukmir say retiree programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as Medicaid, the federal-state health-coverage program for the very poor and disabled, require sweeping changes to remain solvent for future generations.

Both favor, as do most other congressional Republicans, overhauling Medicaid and giving more power to states to run it. Recent such proposals by GOP leaders would substantially cut future spending on Medicaid relative to current projections.

Both say the retiree programs should not be changed for people at or near retirement.

For future generations on Social Security, Nicholson said he would consider means-testing — in which benefits could be reduced for the wealthy —- and raising the retirement age.

Vukmir also supports overhauling the retiree programs but is less specific on solutions. She said she has concerns with means-testing and raising the retirement age for Social Security, though she didn’t rule them out.

Health care

Both Nicholson and Vukmir want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care law also known as Obamacare, and both backed failed GOP bills to do so last year.

For people with pre-existing conditions, the candidates seek to restore high-risk coverage pools such as what existed in Wisconsin and some other states before the ACA. The pools no longer were needed after the ACA took effect because the law prohibited insurers from charging more to cover people based on their pre-existing conditions.

“We did it before; we can do it again,” Vukmir said of the approach in a State Journal interview.

Critics note Wisconsin’s high-risk pool system was too expensive for many to afford, left more than half a million state residents uninsured, included a six-month waiting period for coverage of pre-existing conditions and a lifetime coverage cap of $2 million.

Nicholson and Vukmir both said they support scaling back Obamacare mandates for insurance plans to provide essential health benefits. Nicholson also said insurers should once again be permitted to enact lifetime and annual limits on coverage, a practice the ACA largely ended.

“I’m OK with that kind of product existing,” Nicholson said. “People may decide they want to do that because it’s less expensive.”

Vukmir declined to directly address lifetime or annual limits but said, “We need to unleash consumerism and let the market dictate what people need and want.”

The economy and worker wages

The U.S. economy is flourishing by some key measures, including GDP growth and unemployment. By another, worker wages, scant long-term growth has occurred relative to inflation in recent years.

Nicholson and Vukmir both said the recently enacted GOP tax overhaul law will help employers boost worker wages.

Asked if he supports additional wage measures, Nicholson said, “I’m very wary of dictating to any kind of employer what their wages should be.”

Vukmir said, “We need to continue the two things that seem to have sparked this economy, and that is deregulation and the tax cuts.” She favors making permanent the temporary tax cuts for individuals in the GOP tax law.

Trade and tariffs

Both Nicholson and Vukmir say they back Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which have sparked an escalating global trade war.

Some Republicans are pushing back. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, recently said the trade war is doing “permanent damage” to Wisconsin businesses.

Nicholson, in a recent debate at UW-Milwaukee, said he disagrees.

“What the president is doing is saying to our trade partners: ‘Come back to the negotiating table, and let’s actually get to a world without tariffs,’ “ Nicholson said.

Vukmir said she has spoken with farmers and “I’m amazed at the number of them that are willing to give this some time.”

“They do realize that they’re not getting a fair shake right now,” Vukmir said.

National security

Nicholson and Vukmir both identified as chief national security concerns Middle Eastern countries that harbor or support terrorist groups.

Nicholson emphasized Iran; Vukmir, Syria and Afghanistan.

Nicholson emphasized his opposition to the global nuclear deal with Iran adopted under former President Barack Obama — U.S. participation in which Trump scrapped.

“It is that kind of mistake that makes war more, not less, likely,” Nicholson said.

Debt and deficits

To rein in federal spending, Vukmir favors a federal balanced budget amendment and ending certain federal agencies such as the Department of Education. She also said overhauling Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid is crucial.

Nicholson agrees on the need to overhaul those programs. On Medicare and Medicaid, he said he’d start by changing the U.S. health care system to improve price transparency and encourage more use of health savings accounts.


Both Nicholson and Vukmir are staunchly anti-abortion. Both got a perfect “100 percent” rating from Pro-Life Wisconsin, the state’s most uncompromising anti-abortion group, based on answers to a candidate survey.

As part of the survey, both candidates said they support banning abortion with no exceptions and new restrictions on stem cell research. They also said they favor a federal “personhood” law, a controversial measure that some experts say could criminalize forms of birth control.

Vukmir has been an avowed abortion foe during her time in the state Legislature.

Nicholson supported abortion rights when he was a College Democrats leader about two decades ago. He since has said he evolved as he aged on this and other issues to become more conservative.

Russian election interference

Both candidates tread carefully on the investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller into Russian election interference in the 2016 campaign.

Last year the U.S. intelligence community publicly concluded that the Russian government led an unprecedented campaign of interference, including successful hacking, to affect the 2016 election, undermine U.S. faith in its democracy, hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump.

Asked if she agrees with that conclusion, Vukmir said, “I have confidence in our intelligence agencies and the conclusions they come to.”

“But,” she added, “I do think the Mueller investigation has gone on too long and needs to be wrapped up.”

Nicholson said Russians and their Soviet predecessors long have meddled in U.S. affairs and “I agree that they intended to manipulate this election like they have all elections.”

When pressed, Nicholson declined to back another key part of the U.S. agencies’ conclusion: that part of the Russian aim was to help Trump.

“Anyone who’s pretending that they know the intent of the Kremlin is making it up,” Nicholson said.


Both Vukmir and Nicholson broadly oppose new gun restrictions. Vukmir also has a pro-gun voting record and a key endorsement from the National Rifle Association.

The NRA gave Nicholson an “AQ” rating, meaning he is, in the group’s words, a “pro-gun candidate” whose rating is based on responses to a questionnaire.


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