Buoyed by a strong showing in suburban Milwaukee, State Sen. Leah Vukmir defeated Kevin Nicholson in Tuesday’s primary election to capture the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Vukmir advances to a general-election matchup with incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who faced no opposition. It is the first time in Wisconsin history that both major parties have nominated women candidates in a U.S. Senate race.
Vukmir said her win shows “there’s no substitute for the grassroots.”
“Voters sent a clear message that we want to take our Wisconsin Way, our economic miracle, and our strong conservative victories to Washington and help President Trump make America great again. That’s exactly what I intend to do,” Vukmir said.
Vukmir added that Baldwin “has been a disaster (for) our state.”
Nicholson did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
Baldwin said, “Wisconsinites want someone who will be in their corner and stand up to powerful special interests in Washington, not a bought-and-paid-for senator.”
“Leah Vukmir has a long record of putting her corporate special-interest backers ahead of hardworking Wisconsin families,” Baldwin said.
Wisconsin’s other U.S. senator, Ron Johnson, issued a statement thanking both GOP candidates “for running energetic campaigns.”
“With the stakes so high, it’s time for conservatives to come together and join me in supporting Leah and making Sen. Baldwin a one-term senator,” Johnson said.
Vukmir, R-Brookfield, used a tried-and-true template to win GOP primaries in Wisconsin: She dominated suburban Milwaukee, where the largest concentration of Wisconsin GOP voters live and where turnout typically is strong.
Nicholson, R-Delafield, was banking on an outsider message that worked well for two other Republicans in Wisconsin in 2016: Trump and Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh. Nicholson also enjoyed massive support from outside groups, many of them funded by Illinois businessman Richard Uihlein.
The GOP race turned increasingly negative in its closing weeks, with much of the sparring over who has been more loyal to Trump. Nicholson and his allies 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.
Recent polls showed the race to be very close. They also showed a geographic divide — with Vukmir leading in southeastern Wisconsin and Nicholson carrying most of the rest of the state — that bore out in Tuesday’s results.
Nicholson and Vukmir have few ideological differences — both want to repeal Obamacare, support Trump’s tariffs, want to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, call for dramatic changes to federal retiree and health care programs, and staunchly oppose abortion rights and new gun restrictions. Nicholson favors the legalization of marijuana for medical use only; Vukmir does not.
With so few issue differences between the candidates, the focus was on their biographical contrasts — and on who gave Republicans the best chance to unseat Baldwin.
Vukmir casts herself as an activist-mom-and-nurse-turned-lawmaker who, after joining the state Legislature, helped Gov. Scott Walker enact some of the state’s most historic conservative reforms.
Nicholson stressed his service as a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his business background as a management consultant.
Wisconsin’s Republican establishment was strongly behind Vukmir. She had endorsements from U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville; Congressmen Sean Duffy, of Wausau, Glen Grothman, of Glenbeulah, and Jim Sensenbrenner, of Menomonee Falls; and former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus; among others.
Officially, Walker did not endorse 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, publicly endorsed Vukmir.
Nicholson had endorsements from Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Mike Lee, of Utah, and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, among others. He also enjoyed a rich vein of financial support from Uihlein, who has given more than $15 million this cycle to fund a constellation of five super PACs that spent heavily to support Nicholson, either primarily or exclusively, and attack Baldwin.