Leah Vukmir Welcomes Your Hate
Or how to run for U.S. Senate in the land of scorched-earth politics.
Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir has announced her campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018, and I seem to loom large in the press release for her candidacy.
Near the top of the testimonials to Vukmir is this one from WISN conservative talk show host Dan O’Donnell: “If the Shepherd Express hates you and Milwaukee Magazine hates you and Bruce Murphy hates you… I’m struggling to find how that’s a negative here…”
Ouch. I was not aware I hated Leah Vukmir, but no doubt O’Donnell knows more about this than I do, being such an expert on hate. Leah and I occasionally appeared on the TV pundit shows of Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling and I always found her personally likable.
As for pairing me in the hate department with the Shepherd, that won’t please the publication, which once bashed me in its anonymous Expresso column for my allegedly Republican views.
The larger point here is that Leah is happy to be hated by many people, even if it includes “the Republicans that are fighting to increase road taxes and gas taxes and usage fees and import tollways,” as O’Donnell notes. They are probably just RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only, and hate from them is apparently good, too.
Or as conservative talker Mark Belling noted, in another testimonial quoted by the campaign: “Leah Vukmir has been the one who has always been trying to push the envelope and keep the Republican Party conservative, and move it more conservative.”
Yes, the party must move ever further right, and the best way to do that, it seems, is to excoriate and exclude people. Once Wisconsin’s Republicans were the party of the Big Tent; now they like throwing campers out into the cold. That’s why loyal longtime party moderates like Mike Ellis and Dale Schultz had to be hounded by conservatives until they quit the legislature.
Vukmir could be the poster child for that approach. As a 2016 feature story in Milwaukee Magazine by Matt Hrodey found, Vukmir has “developed a reputation for walling herself off from debate and anyone who disagrees with her,” and for working with “a tight group of people” that excludes any moderate conservatives. This apparently is seen as proof to O’Donnell that Milwaukee Magazine hates Vukmir, but the description is exactly the portrait of her that Vukmir’s campaign glories in, so go figure.
Strategically speaking, Vukmir’s hard-edged portrait of herself as the state’s uber conservative makes some sense, given that her opponent in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate is Kevin Nicholson, a former Democrat who switched parties in 2005 or 2008, depending on whose account you care to believe.
But there is little doubt that Vukmir, should she win the primary, will run in the general election with the same sort of draconian, us-against-them campaign against incumbent Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Baldwin is clearly a liberal, but rather old school: both as a state legislator and congresswoman, she’s loved finding someone from the Republican Party to co-sponsor legislation. Perhaps because she is a lesbian who has long dealt with prejudice, she typically looks for ways to convert those who disagree with her. She had a friendly and respectful relationship with former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the man she beat in 2012 to become U.S. Senator.
Thompson always wanted to win everyone’s vote; he carried Democratic Milwaukee County every time he ran for governor. By contrast, he once noted, Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker now seek to get one vote more than 50 percent. Walker uses a “divide and conquer” approach, as he once confessed to his wealthy campaign contributor Diane Hendricks, who now backs Vukmir.
It is Walker, more than any politician, who has helped make Wisconsin one of the most politically polarized states in America. “No other state in America is as polarized over its governor,” as an analysis of voting and polling data by Journal Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert found.
Consider the dispute over the extreme gerrymandering of Wisconsin, which has led to a legal challenge now before the U.S. Supreme Court. A long list of Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, support a ruling that ends gerrymandering, as do 68 percent of all Republican respondents nationally, a new poll has found. That would be heresy in Wisconsin, where Republicans vociferously defend a rigged system that gives them a built-in, 25-seat advantage over Democrats in the race for 99 assembly districts.
Should she win the primary, Vukmir won’t be out to win the voters’ love, but to win their hate — for everything Baldwin and her supporters stand for. She wants to make this an all-out war between far right and far left, to make Wisconsin as polarized as possible, to stoke the kind of anger for liberals that brings more of her supporters to the polls. All she needs is one more vote than her opponent.