The first debate between the Republican contenders for Tammy Baldwin’s U.S. Senate seat lasted one hour and eighteen minutes. It was largely amicable. Each candidate stayed on script, making the necessary case to appeal to hardline primary voters. The final four minutes were different. They revealed this race is more about the perception of “insider” and “outsider” than reasonable differences over policy, and the winner will determine how fault lines harden in the Republican Party.
On Thursday, U.S. Senate candidates Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson squared off for a debate sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers’ political arm. With just two weeks until the Republican’s endorsement convention on May 13, state Sen. Vukmir emphasized her 15-year career in the legislature while Nicholson positioned himself as a veteran and outsider bent on disrupting the status quo.
Right off the bat, Nicholson’s opening statement addressed revelations that he once served as President of College Democrats of America, and his immediate family has maxed out to Baldwin’s re-election campaign. Nicholson told the audience his views were clarified later in life — that his military service and experience as a cowboy in Wyoming taught him “what conservatism is and how it’s a path toward the future.”
Vukmir touted her record helping Gov. Scott Walker nullify Wisconsin’s labor movement; she pivoted from a question on DACA: “We must first build the wall. There can be no discussion about immigration reform until we first talk about the wall.” Vukmir and Nicholson shared comparable viewpoints on healthcare, China, a debunked claim regarding Sen. Baldwin and the Tomah VA, and tax policy, among others.
The tone shifted dramatically during the first round of closing arguments. Nicholson blamed GOP consultants, aka the “Madison Swamp,” for recent GOP losses — including a nearly 12-point defeat in a statewide Supreme Court election (prompting Scott Walker’s tweet below); Vukmir called him out for suggesting she disrespected his military record.
Nicholson: “…We have to do things differently. You all knew this when you voted for Donald Trump.”
Vukmir: “I appreciate Kevin’s service to our nation. But he’s going to have to prove what his conservative track record is. We know more about his track record as a Democratic than as a Republican.”
Nicholson: “My track record? My track record. I would look to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan if you want. That’s where I’d look first. I know that doesn’t mean much to certain politicians. I know that darn well…”
Vukmir: “That was a low blow. I would ask you to apologize. We must respect our military, and I do.”
Nicholson: “If it makes you feel better, I feel respected.” A few groans were audible as moderators brought the debate to a close.
Despite widespread unanimity on the issues, this exchange is a microcosm of broader questions concerning the Republican Party. Vukmir was endorsed by former White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus and currently sits in Gov. Scott Walker’s old legislative seat. Nicholson, of course, represents the populist wing, having secured the early support of President Trump and Steve Bannon as well as prominent organizations behind the Roy Moore campaign.
Nicholson went as far as to downplay the value of the party’s upcoming endorsement vote, likely due to Vukmir’s close establishment ties. While the official endorsement comes with crucial party resources and access to donors, it wouldn’t render Vukmir invincible. Nicholson holds a $400,000 advantage in cash on hand. A Marquette University poll had him ahead by nine points, and internal campaign research claims he leads Vukmir 45-to-27 percent. More importantly, both candidates are financed by billionaires and will maintain ample fundraising prowess over the next three and a half months.
Though Vukmir and Nicholson signed a “unity pledge” in January, the fight between insider and outsider is set to be on full display through the August 14 primary. Victory Fund will keep a close eye on how the May 13 endorsement meeting impacts each candidate’s fundraising, ground game, and overall viability in the weeks ahead.
What’s given is that the unprecedented level of outside spending against Tammy Baldwin will continue. Her record will be mischaracterized; some ads will be less palatable than others. Indeed, she has faced more spending than every other Democratic Senator up for election in 2018 combined. Chief among these groups is the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity, which has already spent over $4.3 million against her in 2018. According to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Thursday’s contest was, “Less a debate and more an audition; a chance for Vukmir and Nicholson to show the Kochs that they’d work for them, not Wisconsin.” They have a point.
Martha Laning, Chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, adds that the Wisconsin electorate is much more aligned with Tammy on the issues:
“On health care, more than half of Wisconsinites want Congress to fix the Affordable Care Act and just 27 percent of Wisconsinites back a full-on repeal and replace plan. Yet Vukmir and Nicholson continue to champion Trumpcare repeal bills that would gut protections for Wisconsinites with pre-existing conditions and strip care away from tens of millions of Americans.”
For her part, Sen. Baldwin spent Thursday night addressing a packed house at the University of Wisconsin, where she spoke about youth engagement, college affordability, and outside spending: “My belief is that these outside super PACs have an agenda. It is about their interests — not ours. They have seen through so many years that I am totally unafraid to stand up to them no matter how much money they spend.”
Watch Tammy’s latest ad: