It didn’t get much attention in a night of historic “firsts,” mostly for Democratic candidates in Vermont, Connecticut, and Minnesota. But Leah Vukmir’s Wisconsin Republican Senate primary win over Kevin Nicholson bears mention as a rare GOP counterpart to the “Year of the Woman” that has been unfolding on the Democratic side this entire midterm election cycle.
Looking around the 2018 Senate landscape, there aren’t many Republican women in competitive contests. In the “Trump Ten” races where Democratic incumbents are running in states carried by the president in 2016, there were no Republican women nominees at all until Vukmir’s win — an upset, by most measures — in Wisconsin. Four of the “Trump Ten” Democrats are women.
Yes, Marsha Blackburn is the GOP choice to try to hold onto deep-red Tennessee, and two of the three Republican Senate candidates in Arizona (which holds its primary on August 28) are women. The Arizonans, however, are all at this point general-election underdogs to a Democratic woman, Kyrsten Sinema.
So Vukmir is important to Republicans who want to fight back against a large and growing gender gap. And whatever you think of her politics, you have to admire her tenacious campaign against a primary opponent who was right out of central casting and had the backing of one of the deepest pockets in U.S. politics.
To call Kevin Nicholson a GOP “golden boy” is a bit of an understatement. A nationally prominent Democrat in his younger days (like Ronald Reagan!), he picked up a couple of Ivy League professional degrees, deployed as a Marine to both Afghanistan and Iraq, joined the A-list consulting group McKinsey and Company, and then set up his own lucrative management consulting operation in Wisconsin. Tim Alberta memorably described his effect on GOP audiences during the early stages of his campaign:
[C]andidates like Kevin Nicholson don’t come around every day. It should come as no shock that some Republicans have fallen for him: With his Hollywood looks, military pedigree, Ivy League smarts and private-sector proficiency, Nicholson could have been built in a GOP laboratory. He is hungry and confident and committed, having oriented much of his adult life around an eventual run for public office. His published writings on pension reform read like a product of the Heritage Foundation; his voluntary second tour overseas is the stuff ad-makers fantasize about. He is, for comparison’s sake, a wealthier, better-looking and more charming version of Senator Tom Cotton. “Kevin is even more impressive in person than he is on paper,” gushes David McIntosh, the former congressman and Club for Growth president.
Just as importantly, Nicholson had early on won unlimited financial backing from Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, heavy investors in hard-core conservatism nationally and especially in Wisconsin. The Uihleins eventually gave nearly $11 million to groups backing Nicholson and bashing Vukmir.
So Vukmir, a stolid conservative legislator known for her loyal support of Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting, budget-cutting, corporate-friendly agenda, had a tough row to hoe. It didn’t help that in a climate of national GOP toadying to Donald Trump, she was on record as having backed three other 2016 presidential candidates at various points in the primaries. She was precisely the kind of time-serving non-MAGA conservative pol that had not been doing well in competitive primaries since Trump’s election.
But Vukmir had her own assets, including endorsements from House Speaker Paul Ryan and several other members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation, and tacit support from Walker (he was officially neutral, but his wife endorsed Vukmir, and his son worked on her campaign). She also received the official state-party endorsement. And she even found her own deep-pocket donor in building-supply-tycoon Diane Hendricks, who didn’t match the Uihleins but did help.
Nicholson led in the preprimary polling averages, and seemed to have a lot of mojo working for him, but Vukmir won by better than 11 percent by sweeping her (and Walker’s) vote-heavy Greater Milwaukee base. Kevin Nicholson’s inevitable path to the White House will have to take a detour, and Tom Cotton’s “lane” as the GOP’s Man With the Golden Résumé is safe for now.
Vukmir, though, now has the daunting task of taking on incumbent senator Tammy Baldwin, who has much higher name ID, a lot more money, a solid lead in the early polls (she leads Vukmir by an average of 13 points, which is a lot for hyperpolarized Wisconsin), and a presumed Democratic tailwind of some size. According to Morning Consult, Baldwin’s current approval ratio is 44/39, not great, but positive and stable. And Donald Trump’s approval ratio in Wisconsin is 41/56, which won’t help Vukmir or her ticket-mate, Scott Walker, who is facing probably the toughest challenge of his career.
Long before the returns came in, Wisconsin Republicans began planning a postprimary unity event for this Friday, August 17, co-chaired, significantly, by Diane Hendricks and Richard Uihlein. Their ticket will need all the money both these billionaires can afford. And you can be sure that their inspiration will be the 2016 Senate race when left-for-dead incumbent Ron Johnson soared past Russ Feingold in a cash-infused late surge that shocked everybody.
Nationally, Republicans would love to see Vukmir win most obviously because that could offset likely Senate losses elsewhere, helping the GOP maintain or even increase control of the upper chamber. But it would also give them the rare trophy of a 2018 statewide Republican woman candidate who’s not just a loser or an afterthought.