After a mostly pleasant evening of general agreement on the issues, the two Republican candidates for U.S. Senate turned their fire on each other during chaotic closing remarks at the end of their first debate Thursday evening.
The debate between Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson and Brookfield Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), went smoothly for most of the evening as the two addressed issues about trade, the First Amendment, government spending and taxes.
Nicholson and Vukmir are the two Republican candidates competing in the August U.S. primary. The winner of the GOP primary will take on the incumbent, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, in November.
While the two candidates had a different emphasis, with Nicholson staying on message about being an outsider and Vukmir touting her conservative record in Madison, they largely agreed on the substance of the issues. However, at the end of the debate, the gloves started to come off and the ringside bell was ignored. Vukmir gave her closing remarks first, hitting the theme of her proven conservative record in Madison.
“It’s not enough to elect just any Republican to the United States Senate,” Vukmir said. “We can’t take chances on the unknown. We have to elect a strong, proven consistent conservative.”
In his closing remarks, Nicholson said Vukmir was referring to him when she referred to the “unknown.”
“I feel like I might be the unknown in that variable,” Nicholson said. “I am. I’m clearly different, folks. Clearly different kind of candidate. That is what we need.”
Nicholson then referred to a statement made by Republican consultant Keith Gilkes, a strategist for Governor Scott Walker, at a WisPolitics.com luncheon without naming him, saying it reflected the view of “the Madison swamp.”
“He thought she was responsive to voters. Anyone here believe that?” Nicholson asked. After citing the Iran deal and the problems at the Tomah VA hospital, Nicholson continued. “That is the bubble. That is the establishment. That is why we lost that Supreme Court race recently.”
Debate moderator Dan O’Donnell, a conservative talk show host on WISN-AM, ruled that Vukmir was mentioned in Nicholson’s remarks and so she was granted a minute to respond. Vukmir noted that Nicholson seemed to be allowed to go over his allotted time of three minutes and said she would speak longer than a minute.
After stating that she appreciated his military service, Vukmir said Nicholson is going to have to prove his conservative track record. “I don’t have to prove that to you. You know what my track record is,” said Vukmir. “We know more about his track record as a Democrat than we know about his track record as a Republican.”
After the bell rang indicating her time was up, Vukmir announced that she would continue talking. She spoke about how her experience of what was accomplished in Wisconsin will be taken to Washington. Then she spoke about Nicholson’s comment on the Wisconsin Supreme Court race and the Republican Party.
“It’s a personal affront to hear that Party being maligned,” Vukmir said. “That Party being told the reason why we lost that election was because of some comments by somebody. Everyone in this room stood with the governor and with me when that Capitol was taken over, under siege. You were there with us. You never wavered. You lifted us up. And we made the right decision and we did the right thing and we changed Wisconsin.”
Because Vukmir went long in her answer, O’Donnell granted more time to Nicholson.
“My track record? My track record? I would look to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan if you want it. That’s where I’d look first,” Nicholson said. “I know that doesn’t mean much to certain politicians. I know that darn well.”
Vukmir started shaking her head at this point and said, “That’s wrong. That’s, that’s wrong.” Some in the crowd also appeared to be objecting to Nicholson’s statement and a few boos could be heard before O’Donnell reminded the audience to be quiet.
“Those that I served with know that darn well,” Nicholson continued. “I’m going to be blunt. For those that have said that leading Marines in combat during the course of two wars does not qualify as conservative credentials need to look inside them and decide what they think conservative credentials are.”
Nicholson then said “time and industry” were also his conservative credentials, working in the private sector and time with his family.
“This country will sink or swim because citizens stand up and say we’re sick of the political class flushing its future down the toilet,” Nicholson said.
O’Donnell tried to wrap up the debate at that point but Vukmir announced she had to respond. “That was a very, very low blow to say that I don’t respect you,” Vukmir said, looking at Nicholson. “And I want to make sure everyone in this room knows that. I respect your service and I’m grateful for your service, Kevin. And I didn’t, really, that was a low blow on your part and I, I would ask you to apologize. I get it as a military mom. We must respect our military. I do.”
Nicholson responded, “If it makes you feel better, I feel respected.”
While the crowd muttered it’s disapproval, O’Donnell announced the end of the debate and the two candidates shook hands before leaving the stage. With that, some in the crowd began to sing Happy Birthday to Vukmir who was celebrating her birthday on Thursday.
Nicholson’s team led him out of the hall before he could be questioned, but he did shout back an answer to how well he thought he did at the debate. “I think we nailed it,” Nicholson said.
Vukmir also thought she did well. “I represented our conservative values,” Vukmir said. “That’s what I stand on, that’s what I believe in, that’s what I’ll take to Washington.”
O’Donnell talked afterward with RightWisconsin about the end of the debate. “It was interesting,” O’Donnell said. “They were able to hold it together for the entire question and answer portion. And I think it just hit a little close to home for both of them.”
“This is what we want from debates, right?” O’Donnell said. “It didn’t get overly personal. It was something that quite frankly I didn’t expect after the tone and tenor of, what, the sixty minutes that preceded that? So it was unexpected but it’s a debate, and sometimes that sort of stuff happens.”
When asked about how both candidates decided to ignore the clock, O’Donnell said while laughing, “Yeah, that’s pretty typical of debates, too.”
“Well, what I did at the end was I said, okay, Vukmir is going to finish,” O’Donnell said. “I told Nicholson, alright, whatever time she gets, you get back, too. And he did, and at the very end, that was unexpected, her directly confronting… That was just wild.”
“For the first debate, I can’t imagine what the next debates are going to be like,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell said the debate was a sign that the GOP couldn’t hope for a peaceful primary. “It’s going to be a rough primary,” O’Donnell said. “It’s going to be a tough primary and it’s going to be, I hope not direct like that, but this is what an election is.”
“When two people want the same job, this is what happens,” O’Donnell said. “Passions and emotions and just pent up energy can kind of get the best of you.”
O’Donnell agreed with the idea that the primary is more acrimonious because the debate is about each of the candidate’s credentials rather than policy. “This is when you make a campaign about who you are and what you’ve been which, in a sense, it’s all campaigns are,” O’Donnell said. “But what happened when they were talking about themselves and developing that contrast, and this election is really about the contrast.”
“Vukmir is clearly presenting herself as I’ve been there and I’ve done that,” O’Donnell said. “And I think Nicholson is more the unknown. He’s saying, look, sure, I have the leadership experience with the U.S. Marines and being a businessman. And sure you need to take a flyer on me but look what happened with Donald Trump.”
Eric Bott, the director of AFP in Wisconsin, said he thought both candidates “articulated a very positive vision, a very conservative vision, for how they want to reform Washington and bring the Wisconsin approach to D.C.”
Regarding the debate’s end, Bott said a little bit of fireworks are to be expected. However, Bott focused on the policy discussion.
“From our perspective we were thrilled that they both firmly and strongly came out in support of free speech,” Bott said. “That was clear. They were both strong advocates for Right to Try and for repealing Obamacare. They shared a very clear vision against cronyism and in favor of more tax reform. Overall, we’re pleased with the policy positions they articulated.”