How Republicans Helped Tammy Baldwin
They picked the wrong candidate. That could hand election to Baldwin.
From an organizational standpoint there is much to admire in the Wisconsin Republican Party. For decades, the power of both parties in states across the nation has been in decline; they have lost most of the control over elections that they once had.
But Wisconsin is arguably an exception. Not for the Democratic Party, which has been woefully weak in recent years, but for its Republican counterpart.
Across the nation, Donald Trump was rolling to victory in the 2016 GOP primary until he came to Wisconsin. There most of the state’s Republican officials and party leaders — along with conservative talk radio hosts — stood strong for Ted Cruz and against the party-crashing outsider Trump. And Trump lost. It was a big victory for the party establishment here.
Considering that Nicholson was a former Democrat activist who was still a registered Democrat as recently as 2010, there were many Republicans who were less than excited about his ideological slipperiness. There was also a strong feeling among the GOP faithful that longtime state legislator Leah Vukmir was a party stalwart who had paid her dues and was more deserving of the Republican nomination.
At the state Republican convention in May, Vukmir won the vote of 73 percent of delegates, well more than the 60 percent threshold required to give her the party’s official endorsement. And the party proceeded to do everything it could to elect her.
“The Wisconsin Republican Party delivered money, staff, advertising, grass roots activists and more to Leah Vukmir,” says an long-time Democratic activist. “She doesn’t win the primary without the state party. State Democratic leaders can look to the GOP as a model to follow and emulate in the future for what makes a party effective.”
But in the process, Republicans gave Baldwin an easier candidate to beat. Nicholson’s past as a Democrat hurt him in the GOP primary, but would have been an asset in the general election. Nicholson was a certified American hero, a Bronze Star-winning Marine Corps veteran who served combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He also had impressive business credentials, with an MBA from Dartmouth and MPA from Harvard, and jobs in international business and management consulting. Rather than pitting one party insider (Vukmir) against another (Baldwin), Nicholson would have run as an outsider, in a state that’s long loved mavericks and that voted for outsider Trump in the 2016 general election.
Best of all, Nicholson was a political neophyte with no record to attack, leaving him free to eviscerate Baldwin’s record with little she could run in response.
That’s not to say he would have won. Baldwin went into this race with a huge advantage. As Journal Sentinel analyst Craig Gilbert has reported, mid-term election losers are usually due to voter dissatisfaction with the current president and are from from the same political party, whereas “out-party” incumbents are safe from any blame voters want to express. Historically, all out-party incumbents in the nation have a midterm re-election rate of 91 percent since 1914, while in Wisconsin out-party senators have won 94 percent (15 of 16) general elections over the past 100 years.
This is an election where Republicans badly needed a candidate from outside the parties, from beyond the blue-red divide. Vukmir, as the most recent Marquette University Law School poll shows, is your standard issue Republican, loved by voters in her party and hated by Democratic voters. Baldwin, in many ways, is her mirror opposite.
With one exception: Baldwin does far better with independent voters. They approve of her by 40 percent to 25 percent, while they disapprove of Vukmir by 29 percent to seven percent.
The poll showed similar results for Trump (independents disapproved by 52 percent to 34 percent) and showed they favored Democratic challenger Tony Evers over Republican Gov. Scott Walker by 48 percent to 37 percent. Independents are not thinking Republican thoughts in this election.
Nicholson, who held his own in debates with Vukmir, had at least the potential to transform the election for U.S. Senate. Vukmir not so much. You have to admire Republicans for standing up for principle, and rejecting an obvious opportunist like Nicholson. But in the process they may have lost their only chance to beat Baldwin.
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