PEWAUKEE, Wis. ― The Wisconsin Republican Party has long been a picture of unity. Buoyed by Gov. Scott Walker’s repeated triumphs over Democrats and unions, and by an array of conservative talk show hosts who rally the base, the party has stood together through convulsion after convulsion that rocked the national GOP.
A Senate primary next month is threatening to tear apart that peace between the establishment and grassroots, as businessman and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson vies with state lawmaker Leah Vukmir.
In the Aug. 14 race to take on Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Nicholson’s candidacy has been fueled by one of the GOP’s single biggest donors, Illinois resident Richard Uihlein, while Vukmir is bolstered by the political machine Walker built.
The primary battle shows how even the crown jewel of the Tea Party revolution ― GOP dominance in Wisconsin ― can be threatened by the party’s most powerful donors and the Republican base’s recent thirst for outsider candidates.
Earlier rounds of Senate primaries found Republican voters leaning toward self-styled political outsiders, such as Indiana’s Mike Braun, a businessman who self-funded his bid and defeated two congressmen for the party’s nomination, and West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey, who dropped a mountain on the Capitol in a TV ad.
Nicholson hopes the pattern continues, while Vukmir hopes her record as a longtime Walker ally and a foot soldier in Wisconsin’s conservative revolution can arrest it.
The late and heavily contentious primary in Wisconsin could hinder the GOP’s chances of defeating Baldwin, the most progressive of the 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states President Donald Trump won in 2016 and a top target of the powerful network of conservative donors helmed by the Koch brothers. A Baldwin loss would almost certainly shatter Democratic chances of winning control of the Senate in 2018.
The Walker Machine
On a Friday night earlier this month, at a hotel attached to a water park in the infamously important Waukesha County, House Speaker Paul Ryan and a good chunk of Wisconsin’s GOP ruling class ― Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner and Glenn Grothman were also in attendance ― gathered to aid Vukmir’s bid.
“We’ve all known each other a long time. We’ve known Leah a long time,” Ryan told the crowd of about 100, tracing Vukmir’s path from an activist protesting her children’s school curriculum, onto a state Assembly seat and then into the state Senate. “We need this proven, effective conservative as our next U.S. senator.”
Vukmir’s long service to the party is both her chief weakness and her chief strength in the primary campaign. Her first TV ad highlighted the death threats she received during the debate over Walker’s move to weaken public employee unions during his first year in office.
“When Scott Walker and I beat the union bosses, cut billions in taxes and defunded Planned Parenthood, the left couldn’t take it,” Vukmir said in the ad, as a handgun sat next to her on a dining room table.
Walker hasn’t officially endorsed Vukmir’s bid, but seemingly everyone close to him has. His son works on her campaign, Walker’s wife and the husband of Walker’s lieutenant governor have both endorsed Vukmir and the staff of the super PAC backing her bid is filled with Walker campaign alumni. Ryan noted that Walker’s parents were attending the rally backing Vukmir. Walker and Vukmir even led a conga line together at a weekend party earlier this month.
Vukmir’s biggest advantage may be the official backing of the Wisconsin Republican Party, which she won at a convention in May. Its data and battle-tested ground games are considered unmatched among state parties, and it has already paid for a radio ad backing her and a robocall featuring Ryan that went out to GOP primary voters.
Her second-biggest advantage may be her longtime relationships with Wisconsin’s famously influential conservative talk radio hosts, who can sway voters in places like Waukesha County ― one of the most populous GOP-dominated communities in the country.
“They know me. They know that I have stood with them,” Vukmir said of the party’s decision to endorse her. “Anyone can say they’re a Republican. I can actually show you.”
Vukmir was alluding to Nicholson’s past as a Democrat, a very prominent blemish on a resume that’s otherwise seemingly custom-designed for a GOP that’s been embracing outsiders and military veterans in party primaries.
As a Marine, Nicholson served in Iraq and then volunteered for a second stint in Afghanistan before earning a master’s degree in business administration from Dartmouth and a master’s in public administration from Harvard. He’s also a former president of the College Democrats of America who spoke at the party’s 2000 national convention, backing then-Vice President Al Gore and saying he supported abortion rights.
That 2000 DNC speech is at the core of Vukmir’s attacks ― the super PAC supporting her, Wisconsin Next PAC, uses footage from it in an ad bashing Nicholson.
A Mega-Donor Backs An Outsider
Nicholson says his political conversion happened naturally ― the result of becoming a father and serving two stints on the battlefield. But Vukmir’s allies portray him as a cynical opportunist, a rogue agent who is trying to cut in line for the nomination ahead of a woman who stood with Walker and the rest of the party in the fights with unions, the subsequent failed recall effort against Walker and countless other battles with Democrats.
The day after Vukmir’s rally with Ryan, Nicholson was campaigning at the fairgrounds in Marquette County, where he competed with cotton candy, livestock competitions and rides for the attention of the voting public. A rural county about an hour north of Madison, former President Barack Obama narrowly won Marquette County twice before Trump romped there in 2016, earning nearly 60 percent of the vote.
In an interview, Nicholson brushed aside the criticisms of Republicans who paint him as a Johnny-come–lately.
“We all pay our dues in different ways,” he said, praising many of the reforms Republicans have pushed through during the Walker era. “I don’t remember seeing them in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Nicholson told a voter the “permanent political class” wouldn’t be able to fix the country. I asked him if Vukmir belonged to that permanent political class.
“She’s aligning herself to it pretty hard. I’m comfortable with that. She’s made it very clear she’s an insider,” he said, noting he had agreed to a term-limits pledge. “I’m an outsider. I’m not going to do this as career. If you buy into becoming a political insider, it becomes your objective to remain that.”
What about Walker, Vukmir’s close ally? Was he a member?
“He’s not running for United States Senate,” Nicholson said. “We’re not even going to discuss that. The governor’s made it clear he’s not going to get involved in the Senate race. I’ll keep my comments to my primary opponent.”
One crucial figure compensates for Nicholson’s lack of ties to the establishment: businessman Uihlein. CEO of a packaging supplies company based in Wisconsin, Uihlein has spent more than $7.5 million on TV ads boosting Nicholson’s candidacy through different super PACs. This support from Uihlein, who has emerged as a leading GOP donor this cycle with nearly $30 million in donations to various conservative candidates and PACs like the Club for Growth, almost single-handedly has made the little-known Nicholson a contender.
Late last week, the Club for Growth’s Wisconsin Action Fund, which is funded by a $2.5 million donation from Uihlein, went up with an ad slamming Vukmir as a career politician who sought leniency for a state legislator convicted of sexual assault.
Vukmir has her own billionaire backer in Diane Hendricks, the co-founder of ABC Supply and a staunch Walker backer. But some establishment Republicans in the state say it’s unclear whether Hendricks will end up matching Uihlein dollar-for-dollar in what is certain to be an ultra-expensive primary.
The winner of the primary will face an uphill battle against Baldwin. A Marquette University Law School poll conducted last month found the incumbent ahead of Vukmir, 49 percent to 40 percent, and leading Nicholson by a bit more, 50 percent to 39 percent.
Still, Democrats in the state are worried about a flashback to 2016, when Democrat Russ Feingold lost to GOP Sen. Ron Johnson after leading by double-digits in public polling over the summer. Johnson was aided by a network of conservative groups that kept funding him even when the official party networks stopped doing so. The Koch brothers’ constellation of conservative donors has made Baldwin a top target and made clear it will keep up the attacks on her, recently releasing an ad slamming her for skipping Senate committee hearings.
And there are signs Republicans could quickly reunify the party, no matter how nasty the primary gets. Three days after the primary, Johnson and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) who heads the chamber’s GOP campaign arm, will be the guests of honor at a fundraiser to support the primary winner.
The event’s co-hosts? The same two donors fueling the primary clash ― Uihlein and Hendricks.