The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Wednesday on a recorded conversation (audio) between U.S. Senate Candidate Kevin Nicholson and two other people where Nicholson said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI01, has a “light footprint” in Wisconsin.

After the story was reported, Nicholson appeared on the Jay Weber show on WISN-AM, partly to defend himself against the article. Nicholson starts by saying that the recording came from a Republican and that there were only three people in the conversation so he can “track down” who released it to the press. He also complains, “If you read the quote, this is gotcha journalism.”

“It’s a poor piece,” Nicholson said. “It’s really poorly written and, and it’s an attempt to create media controversy where there should be none.”

Nicholson also defended the light footprint remark. “Yeah, he’s Speaker of the House. He’s got a lot of obligations. A lot of things going on,” Nicholson said. “And that’s hardly controversial in any way, shape or form.”

Nicholson then defended Ryan’s record as Speaker of the House, and then said the problem is the Senate.

After listening to the complete recorded conversation multiple times, it’s actually worse than previously described. Here is the transcript:

Voice 1: Ryan is a closet Democrat.
Nicholson: Which one?
Voice 1: Ryan.
Nicholson: Paul Ryan?
Voice 1: yes
Nicholson: So, I’ll say this for Paul Ryan. He did tell everybody he didn’t want that job. So give him credit for that at least. Right? He said I don’t want to be Speaker in the first place. Um. And I think ever since then, he’s been in a bottle. Right? The speakership is a miserable…
Voice 2: He’s stuck.
Voice 1:He opened up his mouth before the election. He wasn’t going to support Trump.
Nicholson: The Trump issue is awful, I agree.
Voice 1: You should have seen the people come in and calling up and when I called in to Ryan’s office to give him my two cent’s worth…
Nicholson: Yeah.
Voice 1: …his staffers were so busy they couldn’t handle the calls and it went to a voice mail…
Nicholson: Yeah.
Voice 2: He doesn’t go to his constituents.
Nicholson: No, I know he has a light footprint in this state.
Voice 1: Which, you know what? At some point in time he’s got to count on those people who put him in office, and you what?
Nicholson: Right.
Voice 1: He’s going to need our help again sooner or later and…
Nicholson: Right.
Voice 1: …and the help isn’t going to be forthcoming
Voice 2: I don’t think he’s a real conservative, really.
Voice 1: Hell no. His-his actions, and actions speak louder than words.
Nicholson: Right.
Nicholson: Yeah, I know, look. And if he wants, uh, if he wants actually people in the Senate that can get the agenda through that, you know, the House keeps passing these bills, then he needs people in Wisconsin motivated to go out and do something. Quite frankly.
Voice 1: So that’s why we need another Republican…
Nicholson: Yeah. Exactly. One hundred percent. Somebody who’s actually going to do something.
Voice 1: I was glad to hear you were running.
Nicholson: Thank you.

So the “light footprint” remark had nothing to do with being Speaker of the House (which is a ridiculous statement anyway given the frequent public appearances by Ryan in Wisconsin). The remark was about how calls went to voice mail after Ryan criticized then- presidential candidate Donald Trump.

(By the way, an indication of how bad was Nicholson’s comment, the normally hapless Democratic Party of Wisconsin agreed with him.)

But the “light footprint” remark wasn’t the worst of it. It was Nicholson, after both of the other people said that Ryan wasn’t a conservative, saying, “And if he wants, uh, if he wants actually people in the Senate that can get the agenda through that, you know, the House keeps passing these bills, then he needs people in Wisconsin motivated to go out and do something. Quite frankly.”

So Nicholson is agreeing that Ryan isn’t a conservative and that Republicans aren’t motivated because of that.

And it’s also pretty clear from the transcript that Nicholson is also criticizing Ryan for not supporting Trump enough, saying, “The Trump issue is awful, I agree.” Is Nicholson saying he has never had any criticism of Trump, as a candidate or as President of the United States? Is Nicholson saying that Ryan should never disagree with the president? Is Nicholson saying that he will never disagree with the president? What criticism of Trump by Ryan was “awful?”

Nicholson recently received the support of Breibart publisher Steve Bannon and the Super Pac he supports. Breitbart then published an attack on his Republican Primary opponent state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, falsely accusing her of being part of the GOP establishment. Vukmir has been pretty effectively turning that around on the stump, saying they’re confused between the definition of an “established conservative” and the establishment.

(The main criticism of Nicholson from many Republicans is that he does not have an established track record as a conservative, in part because he was an active Democrat until 2012 and has never run for office before.)

Breitbart, of course, infamously backed alt-Right candidate Paul Nehlen against Ryan in the Republican Primary in 2016. Brietbart and Bannon have also continued to make Ryan a target of criticism.

The Nicholson campaign needs to avoid saying different things to different audiences in an effort to court the alt-Right’s favor. They need to make it clear that, even in a pursuit of a “broad coalition” (their words) to defeat Sen. Tammy Baldwin that the alt-Right has no place in the Republican Party.

The National Journal has already described the Republican primary as a contest between Bannon/Breitbart and local conservatives. This recorded conversation is a troubling sign that Nicholson’s campaign might see the race that way, too, and they’re choosing the wrong side.

Nicholson can complain about “gotcha” politics all he wants, or even track down the person who recorded the conversation like he’s OJ Simpson looking for the real killer. He can even complain about the quality of Journal Sentinel reporter Bill Glauber’s writing.

It doesn’t matter. Regardless of whether it was three people or three hundred who heard him, Nicholson needs to have a better explanation of his criticisms of Ryan. He said those words in the recording. Nicholson needs to own them.

Or, he can follow the suggestion of his Republican opponent and just apologize for his remarks. But that window has probably closed given the time that’s passed since the recording became public.

Note:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted the whole Nicholson conservation recording online at Soundcloud.

The discussion of the “light footprint” conversation in Jay Weber’s interview of Nicholson starts at the 74:30 mark. You can follow the link or listen to the entire show below.