Former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus’s endorsement of Leah Vukmir for U.S. Senate has revisited a debate among Republicans on the authenticity of her GOP primary opponent, businessman Kevin Nicholson.
A former national president of the College Democrats, Nicholson, 40, has said he later made a political conversion to conservatism.
But Priebus, speaking Monday morning on 1130 WISN radio, said he’s skeptical.
“I just find this all too convenient, all too contrived — and I just don’t buy it,” Priebus said of Nicholson.
Priebus, a native Wisconsinite and longtime GOP leader in the state who last year served as White House chief of staff for President Donald Trump, instead announced his support for Vukmir, a state senator from Brookfield.
Nicholson’s campaign didn’t mince words in punching back at Priebus. A statement from Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody referenced Priebus’ departure from the White House last year.
“Reince must have hit his head pretty hard when Trump kicked him to the curb. Of course insiders are going to protect insiders,” Moody said.
Meanwhile, Priebus, a past chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said Vukmir’s GOP credentials are beyond reproach. He said Vukmir is the proven conservative in the race to unseat Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
“This is not some moderate Republican we’re talking about,” Priebus said of Vukmir. “We’re talking about a Republican who’s constantly pushing a conservative agenda.”
Vukmir and Nicholson are seeking the GOP nod to face Baldwin, D-Madison, in November. Madison businessman Eric Hovde has said he may join the Republican primary as well.
Asked if he had considered endorsing Nicholson, Priebus praised Nicholson’s military service — but also suggested Nicholson hasn’t paid his dues in Republican politics.
“When you go from president of the College Democrats to wanting to be the U.S. senator for the Republican Party, I think there should be some in-between time,” Priebus said. “Maybe you ought to raise a few dollars for the party. Maybe you ought to volunteer for Ron Johnson a little bit — and show us that this conversion is actually real.”
Priebus is not the first leading Republican to question the sincerity of Nicholson’s political about-face. Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, speaking of Nicholson last year to Politico, said: “I’m not buying it.” Fitzgerald also is supporting Vukmir.
Moody said the period when Nicholson was changing his political views included when he was serving as a U.S. Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We appreciate the shout-out by the former staffer to Kevin’s ‘in-between time,’ since his voluntary combat military service is a core strength of his candidacy,” Moody said.
Nicholson has contributed to Republican candidates, including $250 to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2015.
From 2011 to 2016 he gave to a range of GOP causes and candidates, including to the campaigns of Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Green Bay, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Most recently he gave $200 in December to Judge Michael Screnock, the candidate supported by most Republicans for Wisconsin Supreme Court.