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Kevin Nicholson and Leah Vukmir

At the July 26 debate in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson refused to utter a discouraging word about President Trump. At a time when Wisconsin farmers and industries are hurting because of Trump's tariffs, Vukmir and Nicholson were given repeated opportunities to distance themselves from Trump but declined to do so. PHOTO BY TYGER WILLIAMS/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL VIA AP

Wisconsin, the birthplace of the Grand Old Party, has over the past 165 years produced many of the nation’s most honorable and independent-minded Republican candidates.

No more.

This year, the Republicans who propose to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin are running as automatons who cannot think for themselves — or for their state.

Witness last Thursday’s Republican U.S. Senate debate between career-politician Leah Vukmir and billionaire-funded newcomer Kevin Nicholson. The race is close, according to recent polls. But voters who hoped that the candidates would distinguish themselves — from one another or in any other way — were sorely disappointed.

At a time when Wisconsin farmers and Wisconsin industries are hurting because of Trump administration trade policies, at a time when statewide surveys tell us that most Wisconsinites disagree with the way in which this president is doing his job, Vukmir and Nicholson were given repeated opportunities to distance themselves from Trump.

Yet they refused to utter a discouraging word about the man.

"He's standing for our country. He's doing exactly what he promised,” chirped Vukmir.

“The president's done good work, and we should applaud him for it,” bleated Nicholson, who referred to sincere efforts to get a sense of where he might differ with the president as “a trap.”

Asked about specific concerns that Wisconsinites have regarding tariffs that threaten not just the farmers of America’s Dairyland but historic Wisconsin industries such as Harley-Davidson Inc., Vukmir rejected any criticism of Trump. "I'm going to work very hard to make sure that our president has the support that he needs,” she announced. “He needs the support of people who are going to say, 'You know what? You are a great businessman.'"

That’s not actually true, of course. Trump was a lousy businessman who frequently went bankrupt, failed to pay his bills and engaged in precisely the sort of crony capitalism that genuine conservatives condemn.

But don’t think that Nicholson, who bills himself as a businessman, acquitted himself any more honestly or honorably than his rival.

If anything, Nicholson was even more elaborate in his imaging of Trump as an all-knowing leader who ought not be questioned. Asked about the prospect that long-term harm might be done to Wisconsin farmers by Trump’s trade wars, Nicholson repeated his loyalty oath.

"No, I do not believe that, because it is not (harmful)," he said of concerns regarding the ill-thought-out tariff schemes of a New York real-estate developer who might not be up to speed on the economics of agriculture in the upper Midwest. "What the president is doing is saying to our negotiating partners, 'Come back to the negotiating table and let's actually get to a world without tariffs.'"

Contrast the empty rhetoric of Wisconsin’s Trump puppets with what Republicans who actually care about their states say.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a farmer himself, acknowledged that Trump thinks he is acting as a great negotiator who is trying to push competitors “to the brink.” “But,” Grassley added, “if he goes over the brink it's going to be catastrophic. And right now with the soybeans and corn in my state it is catastrophic, with the drop in prices that we've had."

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker argues that "the Trump-Pence tariffs are hurting the American people."

"These tariffs are a massive tax increase on American consumers and businesses,” explained the senator, “and instead of offering welfare to farmers to solve a problem they (Trump and his aides) themselves created, the administration should reverse course and end this incoherent policy.”

The “welfare” reference came after Trump effectively acknowledged that his policies — the ones Vukmir and Nicholson refuse to criticize — are doing harm. While still preaching that "tariffs are the greatest," the president proposed a multibillion-dollar plan to pay off farmers who have been devastated by retaliatory tariffs from China and other countries.

Republican senators who think for themselves were unimpressed with the $12 billion “trade war bailout.”

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to put a Band-Aid on a self-inflicted wound," complained Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey. "The administration clobbers farmers with an unnecessary trade war then attempts to assuage them with taxpayer handouts. This bailout compounds bad policy with more bad policy."

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Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse was just as tough in his response.

"This trade war is cutting the legs out from under farmers and the White House's plan is to spend $12 billion on gold crutches," declared an exasperated Sasse.

Sasse, who puts his constituents ahead of his party’s president, was unsparing in his criticism of Trump’s approach.

"America’s farmers don’t want to be paid to lose — they want to win by feeding the world," he said. "This administration’s tariffs and bailouts aren’t going to make America great again, they’re just going to make it 1929 again."

It may sound rough to suggest that Trump’s policies might lead to a depression, but Sasse was hardly the only Republican senator to make blunt comparisons as they tried to communicate their disagreement with the president. In a discussion of Trump’s tariff imbroglio, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson said, "This is becoming more and more like a Soviet-type of economy here: Commissars deciding who’s going to be granted waivers, commissars in the administration figuring out how they’re going to sprinkle around benefits."

The statements of Republicans who are already in the Senate reveal how dramatically out of touch Vukmir and Nicholson have made themselves. There can and should be honest debates about trade and tariffs. But this year’s Republican contenders in Wisconsin are incapable of engaging in them because they cannot say “no” to the president.

Vukmir and Nicholson are so tuned into Trump that they are not thinking. They are merely cheerleading for an off-the-rails president whose policies are harming rather than helping Wisconsin.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times