Throughout the past decade, Republicans have experienced prosperity in Wisconsin. In 2010, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker was elected governor and Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson defeated progressive incumbent Russ Feingold for Senate. Walker then became the first governor to fight a recall election successfully. Donald Trump’s victory in the swing state is its capstone. Unity among Republican factions is the source of this success, but growing division and vitriol threaten its continuation.
Wisconsin Republicans have extended a unified conservative vision, which has allowed them continual victories. During primaries, Wisconsin Republicans are typically divided between populist and traditionalist factions. Populists usually do very well in the heavily rural north and west, while traditional conservatives perform best in the southeastern suburbs inside and around Milwaukee County. However, with a clear conservative platform, candidates have motivated all factions to defeat weak Democratic candidates with little appeal outside of the state’s urban centers.
Despite these victories, Wisconsin Republicans have been unable to take control of one of its two Senate seats. In 2012, Democratic incumbent Herb Kohl retired, and Tammy Baldwin ran to take his seat. At the time, she was a U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s second district, which included the extremely left-wing city of Madison. As a candidate running in a swing state, her aggressively progressive platform should never have survived.
Unfortunately, what was suppose to be an easy Republican pick-up turned into a Democratic hold. Of the four candidates running in the primary, the frontrunner was Tommy Thompson, a former governor and Health and Human Services secretary to George W. Bush. Unfortunately, he was attacked by other candidates and the outside organizations supporting them, like the Club for Growth. Thompson won the primary, but he had drained a large portion of his resources in his defense. Baldwin managed to significantly outspend him and won by a comfortable margin. A division among the Republicans resulted in their defeat.
Now, six years after taking office, Baldwin is up for re-election. This time, she appears to be more vulnerable, particularly among younger voters. Once again, Wisconsin Republicans are split along familiar lines and the race likely to once again succumb to negativity. Republicans Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson are currently locked in a close race for their party’s nomination.
Vukmir is the favorite among Republican legislators, local leaders, and conservative activists. She won the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s official endorsement at the state convention in May as well as those of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and several other Republicans in Congress. The National Rifle Association endorsed her the following month.
A businessman from Delafield and Marine veteran, Nicholson was virtually unknown in Wisconsin until last year when he announced his candidacy. He can thank Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, the founder of Uline Corporation and one of the most important donors in the 2018 election cycle, for keeping the race competitive.
While Uihlein wants to advance a conservative agenda across the country, he has allowed a sense of negativity to enter Wisconsin’s Republican primary. The Club for Growth has returned and is launching television ads attacking Vukmir. Her allies have returned fire, and the race is expected to get only more vitriolic. Thompson released a statement criticizing the Club for Growth, writing that “they are wasting precious resources that would be better used in the general election to elect a conservative to the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin.”
Thompson’s concerns about the Club for Growth are accurate. When he won the primary six years ago, the organization pulled out from Wisconsin and gave him no assistance. If Nicholson loses to Vukmir, it is likely that the Club for Growth will abandon the Senate election in Wisconsin, leaving Vukmir drained of resources entering the election.
Conservatives in Wisconsin have a chance to control of both Senate seats. Nonetheless, this opportunity may slip away if outside groups leave the Republican Party divided and bitter. Unified Republicans have made Wisconsin a conservative beacon, but growing division within party lines may end that history of success. We will only know after today what the lasting impact of outside spending in the primary is.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.