MacIver News Service | April 27, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
PEWAUKEE, Wis. – Just in case you missed it, Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson is a U.S. Marine Corp. veteran who served combat tours in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) “stood shoulder to shoulder with Gov. (Scott) Walker” in breaking the “stranglehold of public sector unions” during the Act 10 battles of 2011 and was a key player in Wisconsin’s conservative revolution.
Of course, anyone who has listened to conservative talk radio in Wisconsin over the past several months is well aware of the key talking points. So are the attendees of Thursday night’s Republican U.S. Senate primary debate – the first between GOP contenders Nicholson and Vukmir.
Let’s just say these oft-repeated storylines were hard to miss.
The candidates, however, kept things mostly cordial, at least until closing statements. Then, the gloves kind of came off.
“My track record, I would look to the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, if you want it. That’s where I’d look first,” Nicholson said. “I know that doesn’t mean that much to certain politicians.”
A chorus of boos rose from some in the crowd at the Country Springs Hotel and Waterpark conference room. It was more than an intimation to the state senator’s supporters that Nicholson was talking about Vukmir.
“That was a very, very low blow to say that I don’t respect your service,” Vukmir shot back. “I respect your service and I am grateful for your service. I would ask you apologize.”
“If it makes you feel better, I feel respected,” Nicholson retorted.
Moments before in his closing arguments Nicholson asserted he is the “clearly different” choice, painting himself as an outsider and arguing that Congress doesn’t need another politician – a shot not only at incumbent U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison) but at Vukmir and her 15 years in the state Legislature.
Vukmir poked at Nicholson’s early political days as a Democrat, saying that the veteran will have to “prove his conservative track record.”
“We know more about Kevin’s track record as a Democrat than we do as a Republican,” she said. “You can count on me. I’m not changing my stripes.”
For much of the debate, however, the candidates trained their fire on ultra-liberal Baldwin and stuck to the issues.
A three-member panel – including AFP Director of Policy Akash Chougule, Dan Caldwell, executive director for Concerned Veterans for America, and UW-Madison political science professor Richard Avramenko – asked the candidates their thoughts on everything from tax reform to immigration to the problems plaguing health care.
Asked whether they supported a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, the candidates agreed that America must first fix its porous southern border.
“We must first build the wall. There can be no discussion of immigration reform until we talk about the wall,” Vukmir said.
Nicholson said any reform must be a “sustainable and economically justifiable immigration plan.” Referring to Baldwin, he said any advocate of illegal immigration or “unfettered immigration” based on economic and political motives must be checked by U.S. citizens.
In a room of President Donald Trump fans and free-trade advocates alike, a question on tariffs was particularly intriguing. The candidates walked an interesting tightrope on Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum from China, agreeing that the president is trying to level the playing field in what has amounted to a $375 million trade deficit with the Asian economic powerhouse.
But worries over a full-blown trade war have made for jittery markets and raised cost concerns from manufacturers at home. As Reuters reported, Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Chief Financial Officer John Olin warned that he expects extra costs from the tariffs “on top of already rising raw materials that we expected at the start of the year.”
“That’s going to provide quite a headwind for the company over the next several quarters,” Olin said during Harley-Davidson’s recent conference call with analysts.
Vukmir and Nicholson took aim at Baldwin on a very vulnerable area for the incumbent senator: the Tomah VA Medical Center scandal.
Asked about offering VA patients the ability to choose private health care options, Nicholson pointed to Baldwin’s failure to act when whistleblowers alerted her office about the opioid crisis going on at the Tomah VA facility.
“Let’s remind everybody how she treats people caught up in government health care, and that is the Tomah VA scandal,” said Nicholson, a former member of the state’s veterans affairs board. Baldwin, a universal health care proponent, is a vocal supporter of fellow liberal U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ costly, big-government Medicare for All bill. She has pointed to the VA health care system as a shining example of single-payer healthcare delivery.
On health care, Vukmir called Obamacare “an utter failure.” She agrees with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) that real solutions to the healthcare quagmire have and will continue to come from the states – and the funding should go there, as well.
Neither Nicholson nor Vukmir supports a boost to the federal gas tax to fund the nation’s infrastructure programs. Vukmir said it was a bad idea at the state level when members of her party proposed a tax hike, and she doesn’t see a reason for it at the federal level.
“I do not support raising the gas tax,” Nicholson said. “We do not have a revenue collection problem at the federal government.”
Thursday’s debate comes a little more than two weeks before the GOP holds its state party convention, deciding whether Vukmir or Nicholson will emerge with the party’s endorsement. The Republican candidates face off at the polls in the Aug. 14 statewide primary.
Nicholson has a significant lead over Vukmir in both campaign contributions and spending, but Vukmir says she is leading the contest in grassroots support.