Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Can Nicholson Beat Kleefisch?

Democrats are thrilled about what could be a bruising Republican primary for governor.

By - Feb 2nd, 2022 04:27 pm
Rebecca Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson.

Rebecca Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson.

Talk about naked ambition. For the longest time Republican Kevin Nicholson said he would run for U.S. Senator if Ron Johnson stepped down, or else he’d run for governor. So his campaign theme might be “I can’t be senator so please elect me as your governor.”

Not the greatest way to ramp up your run for office.

But then Robin Vos came to Nicholson’s rescue, though that certainly wasn’t the Republican Assembly Speaker’s intention. At a WisPolitics event Vos advised Nicholson “to not run for governor.”

At a later Capitol news conference Vos referenced poll numbers showing former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch was the clear front-runner in the primary race. She “is the best situated,” Vos said. “She has worked the hardest. She’s been doing this for over a year.”

Which did Nicholson a huge favor, casting him as the outsider candidate, who, like Donald Trump, would run against the ruling Republicans like Vos and State Republican Party Chairman Paul Farrow. “You represent a broken machine — you’re part of it,” Nicholson told Farrow at a party event.

“We can’t take Wisconsin to new heights if we elect a governor from the same, tired political class that lacks the vision, ability and will to fight for the future of our state,” Nicholson declared in announcing his run. And he ridiculed Vos and his advice on talk radio, as Melanie Conklin reported, repeatedly deriding him as Scooby-Doo, “except Scooby-Doo actually gets the guy in the end.”

And so, after months of Kleefisch portraying herself as a Trump-like candidate, Vos has succeeded in making her look like the party insider.

We have seen this movie before. Nicholson, a businessman who served in the military and has never held political office, ran as the outsider candidate in the 2018 Republican primary for U.S. Senator against then-State Sen. Leah Vukmir. His ads touted his service as a Marine officer in Iraq, where he completed 100 combat missions, and his campaign slogan was “Send in a Marine.”

In his debates with Vukmir, Nicholson came on like an alpha male who exuded a Trump style: tough, mean-spirited, with a contempt for Democrats and liberals, but none of The Donald’s tangled syntax and sentences that trail off to nowhere. Nicholson ended up losing with 43% of the Republican primary vote, versus 48% for Vukmir, who went on to defeat against incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Vukmir did well in those primary debates. She was a long-time, hard-edged Republican who gave no room for Nicholson to attack her from the right. Will Kleefisch do as well? I guess that depends on which Kleefisch takes the podium. As a Lt. Governor she seemed like a pro-business, chamber of commerce Republican. Now she has become a rabid Trumpster, calling for Republicans to build an “army” of “mercenaries” to do ballot harvesting, and asking supporters to have their “knives out.” Her most recent comment supported replacing the state elections commission with an elected official so voters “have one throat to choke” if something goes wrong. The use of violent threats has become a truly ugly trend in the Republican Party.

The state Democratic party is gleeful about Nicholson’s entrance into the race, crowing that it has thrown the GOP primary “into chaos.” Nicholson has called Kleefisch “dumb as a bag of hammers” and has predicted Republicans will lose if they nominate her.

He has always been a divisive figure. Nicholson is a former Democrat whose entrance into the 2018 U.S. Senator race was panned by right-wing talk radio hosts Mark Belling and Dan O’Donnell. Nicholson has even managed to divide husband and wife Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who together spent $68 million on federal candidates in the 2020 election cycle alone, making them the fourth largest donors in the nation. But now, as Shawn Johnson reported, Richard is supporting Nicholson while Elizabeth has spent big on Kleefisch.

There is worry among Republicans that, as in the 2018 U.S. Senate race, a tough primary fight will leave the winner without enough campaign funds to mount a strong effort against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. They should be just as worried that Nicholson and Kleefisch both seem fixated on supporters of Trump and his Big LIe about the 2020 election. A silent minority of Republicans in the state differ with such views.

All of which is good news for Evers and he will need it. He won by a tiny margin in 2018, which was a blue wave election. He faces an electorate where the party identification among state voters has switched from about a 4-point Democratic advantage in 2012 to a 1-point Republican advantage that has been maintained since about 2016, according to Marquette Law School pollster Charles Franklin. Finally, Evers must overcome a daunting history: Democrats in Wisconsin have lost 32 of the last 33 elections for governor when the president was a Democrat.

In short, Evers needs all the division and discord in the Republican Party he can get. So far the embattled party is delivering it.

3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Can Nicholson Beat Kleefisch?”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    You mean Dick Uhlein, Nicholson us just a proxy with Dicks hand up his arse moving his mouth.

  2. Maryg says:

    Will sit back and watch the antics as they unfold

  3. gerrybroderick says:

    Media emphasis on the fact that Nicholson is a former Marine raises the indelible memory of “Tail Gunner” Joe McCarthy.
    And all he did was cause great embarrassment to our state, not unlike that being brought upon us currently by Wisconsin’s Johnson. How do military credentials qualify a candidate to manage the affairs of our state? Unless of course he’s planning on doing battle with Democrats in a literal sense.

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