A costly, divisive primary race with Democrat Tammy Baldwin waiting on the other side may be causing unwanted flashbacks for Republicans in Wisconsin. But so far, they’re not worried.
State Sen. Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson, a businessman and Marine veteran, will face off in next Tuesday’s GOP primary for the chance to take on the freshman senator. Republicans had hoped to avoid a messy primary similar to 2012, when their nominee emerged battered and broke and ended up losing to Baldwin.
“Those are never healthy, right? You want to unify coming out of the primary,” Wisconsin GOP Rep. Sean P. Duffy said off the House floor late last month, when asked if Republicans were concerned about history repeating itself in this year’s race that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Leans Democratic.
“I think our state is well-positioned, with [Republican Gov. Scott] Walker at the top of the ticket, to beat Tammy Baldwin,” he added. “But if we can’t unify after the primary, I think that will be problematic.”
Asked if Republicans were going to come together, Duffy responded, “I hope so.”
Since then, the race has become even more divisive, causing Duffy to jump in on behalf of Vukmir, whom he is supporting. On Monday, he appeared in a television and radio ad backed by the state GOP, calling accusations that Vukmir doesn’t support President Donald Trump “fake news.”
But even as the race has heated up, Republicans largely aren’t concerned about a repeat of 2012, despite some warnings from the losing GOP nominee from six years ago.
That nominee, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, said last month that the current primary felt like déjà vu. He called out the conservative Club for Growth, whose political arm has spent more than $2.4 million to boost Nicholson and attack Vukmir.
Thompson said the group also attacked him in 2012 and then stayed out of the general election, giving Baldwin a financial advantage.
“I condemned the Club’s attacks in the GOP primary in 2012 and now in the 2018 primary,” Thompson said in a statement circulated by Vukmir’s campaign. “They are wasting precious resources that would be better used in the general election to elect a conservative to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin.”
There was some initial concern among a handful of Republicans in the state that outside money spent for a certain candidate in the primary might not be spent in the general election if the group’s preferred candidate loses.
But those fears appear to have been quelled by reports of a fundraiser planned for shortly after the primary featuring two billionaires on opposite sides of the contest: Richard Uihlein, who is backing Nicholson, and Diane Hendricks, who is backing Vukmir.
The Club for Growth’s Wisconsin arm, funded by Uihlein, is running a TV ad calling Vukmir not conservative enough. But the group’s president said Tuesday it would still direct its donors to her should she win the primary.
“I think what you’re going to see is the Republican Party will unite beside whoever wins. Frankly, Leah and Kevin are much more conservative than Thompson was so there will be a real contrast with Baldwin,” said David McIntosh, the president of CFG Action Wisconsin.
“I don’t know whether the club will endorse but we’ll certainly be urging our members to contribute to whoever wins,” McIntosh said.
Not so fast
But before any talk of GOP unity, one of the candidates has to win the primary, which means seven more days of dueling ads and jabs.
The latest divide centers on video footage of Vukmir from 2016 calling Trump “offensive to everyone.” Nicholson, a Democrat-turned-Republican, used the footage in a digital ad and Vukmir’s allies countered with the ad featuring Duffy.
Nicholson’s backers see the conflict favoring him, arguing that it has put Vukmir on defense in the final days of the race.
Public polling has shown a close race, with the RealClearPolitics polling average giving Nicholson a 3-point edge.
But Vukmir’s allies are also confident that she will win on Tuesday. She has the backing of the Wisconsin GOP after easily winning the party’s endorsement last month, as well as support from many of the state’s conservative radio hosts. The state GOP, known for its turnout operation and winning track record, also made the unusual move to spend on television for Vukmir, launching the ad featuring Duffy.
Democrats on offense
As the GOP primary has played out, Democrats, watching from the wings, say they recognize a familiar script.
One Democratic operative involved in the race said Democrats had been “not so secretly” crossing their fingers that Republicans would once again be embroiled in a divisive and costly primary.
“It’s getting really bitter and it’s showing a lot of divides in the state, and we basically have a 2012 repeat again which I think is a real big problem for whoever wins,” the operative said.
Democrats view the negative attacks between Vukmir and Nicholson as helpful to their side, exposing some potential future lines of attack. One example they cite is both GOP candidates declining to support Baldwin’s “Buy America” bill to require federal infrastructure projects use American steel and other materials.
“We take nothing for granted but this nasty and expensive Republican primary is going to leave whoever emerges badly damaged,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said.
Baldwin isn’t waiting until after the primary to go on offense. She launched a television ad last week that attacked both Vukmir and Nicholson. Politifact found the ad’s claim that Nicholson made over $1 million advising companies that shut down Wisconsin plants was “mostly false.”
Some Republicans interpreted the ad as a sign that Baldwin recognizes she’s in trouble, running in a state where Republicans have dominated in recent elections. Trump won the Badger State by 1 point in 2016, the first GOP presidential nominee to win the state since Ronald Reagan.
But Democrats say Baldwin was making early moves to define her opponent, a similar tactic deployed in 2012. And she was attempting to counter the barrage of outside spending targeting her for several months.
The senator has also been fundraising to try to combat the outside money that is expected to continue to pour into the state, and it appears her GOP opponent would be at a financial disadvantage after the primary.
Baldwin has raised more than $19 million this cycle, including nearly $1.2 million during the pre-primary reporting period between July 1 and July 25 according to her campaign. Baldwin’s team could not immediately provide her latest cash on hand figure, but she had $7.2 million on hand as of June 30.
Vukmir ended the pre-primary period with $430,000 in the bank according to Federal Election Commission documents. Nicholson’s report was not yet available on the FEC site, and his campaign did not immediately respond to requests for the pre-primary information. But as of June 30, he had $770,000 on hand.
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