By Michael Sainato
Trump’s upset victory in Wisconsin during the 2016 presidential election has emboldened Republicans to try to unseat Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in her 2018 re-election bid, with several Trump donors backing Republican candidate Kevin Nicholson.
Outside spending to super PACs targeting Baldwin is five times greater than the amount spent on all 21 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018. Over $4.7 million was spent against Baldwin or in favor of her Republican opponents in 2017, with over $2.4 million in support of Nicholson. In 2016, outside spending played a significant role in boosting incumbent Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) to victory over former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who lost by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton in the state.
Included among Nicholson’s wealthy donors are John Bolton’s super PAC, Steve Bannon’s Great America PAC, Foster Friess, Sam Zell, Rebekah Mercer, and Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein.
The Uihleins have put $3.5 million and an additional $1.5 million into super PACs backing Nicholson. Wisconsin Democrats have called on Nicholson to disavow support from the Uihleins, an Illinois-based billionaire couple who were the top donors for failed Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore.
Like Moore, Nicholson has received and touted the endorsement of former White House chief adviser Steve Bannon, as he takes on the Republican establishment candidate, State Senator Leah Vukmir, for the U.S. Senate Republican nomination. Vukmir openly called on Nicholson to disavow Bannon’s endorsement earlier this month.
“Join Steve Bannon and the conservative movement in support of political outsider Kevin Nicholson for U.S. Senate,” Nicholson’s campaign website states. Bannon’s endorsement makes him the best funded pro-Bannon Senate candidate in 2018.
Nicholson’s embrace of Bannon’s far-right conservatism is in stark contrast to his past as a rising star in the Democratic Party. In 1999, Nicholson was elected president of the College Democrats of America while a junior at the University of Minnesota. The position included a full-time job at the Democratic National Committee and a speaking slot during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
During his convention speech, Nicholson argued in favor of a woman’s right to choose. Now, he asserts a pro-life position. Nicholson’s conversion to far-right Republican occurred sometime over the past decade, as he was registered as a Democrat in North Carolina as late as 2008 and voted in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
Rather than shun his past as a Democrat, Nicholson has tried to work his own version of it into his campaign. “I start every speech talking about how I was a Democrat, and what I saw and what I was involved in, and how it made me a conservative,” Nicholson told Politico last year. (Nicholson’s campaign conducted a telephone poll to see which version of his Democratic past voters would approve of: one in which he did vote for a Democrat in the 2008 primary, and one in which he did not.) He’s claimed in interviews that the DNC wrote in the pro-abortion line in his 2000 convention speech.
Wisconsin Democrats have started to use his past as a Democrat to frame Nicholson as an untrustworthy political opportunist. During his current campaign, Nicholson has embraced far-right stances on a number of issues, including endorsing Trump’s idea for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to “permanently end illegal immigration.”
Republican Governor Scott Walker is up for re-election in Wisconsin in 2018, making the state an even larger battleground between Democrats and Republicans working to solidify power in the swing state. Walker’s approval ratings have sunk as low as 37 percent, but climbed back last year to 48 percent. Though Walker has yet to endorse a candidate in Nicholson’s race, his son formally joined his primary opponent Vukmir’s campaign as deputy political director. Walker and House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-WI) have stayed on the sidelines so far, as the rift in the Republican Party widens between establishment Republicans and alt-right figures like Bannon and his billionaire allies.