WEST ALLIS — Leah Vukmir looked to be in her element Tuesday at the Wisconsin State Fair, backed by a crew of volunteers, a table piled with GOP swag and a cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump.
Vukmir, a Republican state senator from Brookfield, chatted up fair-goers one by one as they filed past the GOP fair booth.
It gave Vukmir a platform to court potential primary voters in the waning days of her race against fellow Republican Kevin Nicholson, of Delafield. The primary is Tuesday, with the winner advancing to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison, in the Nov. 6 general election.
Polls suggest the primary is tight. The most recent Marquette Law School Poll last month had Vukmir at 34 percent support among likely Republican primary voters, with 32 percent for Nicholson and 30 percent undecided. Polls also show a geographic divide, with Vukmir leading in southeastern Wisconsin and Nicholson in front in most of the rest of the state.
The GOP race has turned increasingly negative of late, with much of the sparring over who has been more loyal to Trump. Nicholson and his allies have attacked Vukmir’s March 2016 pronouncement that Trump is “offensive to everyone,” while Vukmir and her allies have hit Nicholson for his past as a onetime Democratic supporter of abortion rights.
Jane and Larry Pallen, of Muskego, were among the fairgoers who, after hearing from Vukmir personally, counted themselves among her supporters.
Pallen said she and her husband gave Nicholson a look. But, she said, “there’s too much at stake to put him in there sight unseen.”
“We’re going to go with the sure thing,” Pallen said.
Fellow fairgoers Frank and Barbara Passante, of Pewaukee, said they are Nicholson supporters. They heard him on local talk radio and felt “he’s young, he’s energetic, he seems knowledgeable,” Frank Passante said.
The Passantes know Nicholson is an ex-Democrat, but that doesn’t seem to worry them.
“Maybe being over in Afghanistan and having bullets flying over your head would change your perspective,” Barbara Passante said.
Nicholson and Vukmir appear to have few ideological differences; both hew to Republican orthodoxy on a range of issues. So the focus has been on their biographical contrasts.
Vukmir casts herself as an activist-mom-turned-lawmaker who, after joining the state Legislature, helped Gov. Scott Walker enact some of the state’s most historic conservative reforms.
Nicholson, meanwhile, is proud of his elected inexperience. He leads with his service as a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his business background as a management consultant.
Wearing jeans and a polo shirt with aviator sunglasses clipped to the collar, Nicholson faced a small semi-circle of supporters Wednesday on the second floor of a Downtown Madison Mexican restaurant.
As heads nodded, Nicholson invoked his campaign mantra: “I’m the outsider.”
“I think the whole political class in this state has made this darn clear,” he added.
There is no question Wisconsin’s Republican royalty favors Vukmir. She is endorsed by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville; Congressmen Sean Duffy, of Wausau, Glen Grothman, of Glenbeulah, and Jim Sensenbrenner, of Menomonee Falls; former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus; and many others.
Officially, Walker has not endorsed in the race. But he is a longtime ally of Vukmir in the state Capitol and repeatedly has appeared in public with her during the campaign. Walker’s son Alex works for Vukmir’s campaign, and Walker’s wife, Tonette, has publicly endorsed Vukmir.
Nicholson has endorsements from Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Mike Lee, of Utah, and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, among others. He also enjoys a rich vein of financial support from a single Illinois mega-donor: businessman Richard Uihlein. Uihlein has given more than $15 million this cycle to fund a constellation of super PACs supporting Nicholson, either primarily or exclusively. Such groups may not work directly with Nicholson or his campaign but can run ads promoting him or bashing his opponents.
Vukmir has her own supportive super PAC and backing from high-profile conservative talk radio hosts in the Milwaukee area.
Recently, Nicholson allies have aired ads featuring a grainy video of Vukmir speaking in March 2016 to former Milwaukee radio host Charlies Sykes. Vukmir says in the video that Trump is “offensive to everyone” and holds her nose, at one point, to illustrate how she thinks many Republicans will vote for him if he becomes the party’s nominee.
‘Outsider’ label helps
Nicholson is quick to note that the two Republicans who won Wisconsin in 2016 — Trump and Sen. Ron Johnson, of Oshkosh — also were businessmen with no elected experience before first running statewide or nationally.
For some voters, the outsider label carries heft. Will Lesnjak, a Deerfield voter who attended Nicholson’s Wednesday event, is one example.
Lesnjak, a self-described independent conservative, said he supported Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in the 2016 campaign until Hillary Clinton became the nominee. Then Lesnjak said he became a Trump supporter and now he’s supporting Nicholson.
“I like to vote for outsiders,” Lesnjak said.
The video of Vukmir deeming Trump “offensive” before Wisconsin’s 2016 presidential primary sealed the deal for Lesnjak.
“I was for Nicholson anyway, but that pushed me further away from Vukmir,” he said.
Vukmir has noted she went to bat for Trump in the presidential campaign in October 2016 after the release of the Access Hollywood recording in which Trump bragged about groping women. Vukmir cut a widely circulated radio ad with other prominent Republican female elected officials in the Milwaukee area, urging support for Trump.
The two most recent Marquette Law School polls have shown Vukmir solidly leading in the Milwaukee suburbs, where the greatest concentration of Wisconsin Republicans reside. The region is critical for Republicans in all statewide elections, but particularly in a GOP primary. In the last Republican U.S. Senate primary in 2012, the 10-county Milwaukee media market accounted for about half of all ballots cast.
Nicholson, meanwhile, is strong outside southeastern Wisconsin, the Marquette polls show.
The Trump question
Polls show Trump, while not especially popular overall, continues to be viewed favorably by an overwhelming majority of Republicans. But in the Milwaukee suburbs — where many GOP voters were slow to warm to Trump in the 2016 campaign — it’s unclear if Vukmir’s comments about Trump will be as much of a liability.
The Pallens described themselves as “late to the party on Trump.”
Carl Evans, a likely GOP primary voter from Brookfield, said his considerations in picking a candidate don’t include total fealty to Trump.
“His rhetoric I could do without. But he’s been effective,” Evans said of the president.
Evans spoke briefly to Nicholson at the State Fair Tuesday but later told the Wisconsin State Journal he remains a Vukmir supporter because of her record.
Mike Laeuger, another GOP voter at the fair Tuesday, said he plans to vote in the U.S. Senate primary but is undecided on whom to support. Laueger, of New Berlin, also said he’s not seeking a senator who’s in total lockstep with Trump.
“I voted for (Trump) and kinda regret it — but what choice was there?” Laueger said.
As Laueger surveyed the GOP fair booth, Vukmir pulled him aside. Moments later, he told the State Journal he was impressed to learn Vukmir — as she hopes to do with Baldwin — defeated a Democratic incumbent during her first bid for state Senate in 2010.
Laeuger said he now was leaning Vukmir. But as with many undecided voters, there was more homework to do in the campaign’s final days.
“I’ll look into the other guy,” Laueger said. Then he left the fair booth, and the next prospective voter sauntered by. Vukmir bounded toward him, ready to make her pitch.