Former White House chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusWisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Democrats claim vindication, GOP cries witch hunt as McGahn finally testifies MORE is endorsing state Sen. Leah Vukmir in the tough Wisconsin GOP Senate primary.
The backing from the former Republican National Committee chairman and one of the most noteworthy Republicans in Wisconsin is a big get for Vukmir, who is locked in an increasingly-harsh primary against Kevin Nicholson, a Marine Corps veteran who is new to Republican politics.
Speaking on 1130 WISN radio in Wisconsin, Priebus, a former Wisconsin GOP chairman, lauded Vukmir as "constantly pushing a conservative agenda" and said she would match up well against Democratic Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack This week: Democrats kick off chaotic fall with Biden's agenda at stake MORE.
"She was there every step of the way building what we built in Wisconsin," Priebus said.
"She deserves credit but she's highly qualified and without question the best choice for U.S. Senate."
In explaining his endorsement, Priebus blasted Nicholson's past as a Democrat — he served as the head of the College Democrats of America before his experiences prompted him to switch parties. Priebus framed Nicholson as a young man in a hurry, calling on him to prove his GOP chops before jumping into a major statewide race.
"When you go from president of the College Democrats to wanting to be the U.S. senator for the Republican Party, there should be some in-between time, in that particular case, to say maybe you ought to raise a few dollars for [House Speaker] Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE's group. Maybe you ought to raise a few dollars for the party ... and show us this conversion is actually real," Priebus said.
"I just find this all too convenient, all too contrived, and I just don't buy it."
The rare endorsement from Priebus, who has largely remained out of the spotlight since leaving the White House last year, underscores the intense jockeying between Nicholson and Vukmir ahead of the Aug. 14 primary.
Nicholson stormed out of the gate with endorsements from influential conservative groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks and has won backing from lawmakers like Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Matthew McConaughey on potential political run: 'I'm measuring it' MORE (R-Texas). He also won the backing of former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, an endorsement that's since lost its luster after Bannon's spat with President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE.
Vukmir, who has tried to frame herself as the conservative alternative to Nicholson, has the backing from a handful of popular conservative talk show hosts in the state and a number of state lawmakers.
Signs already point to a tough primary. Big-money donors are lining up behind both candidates in what could turn into an arms race and the two candidates have been frosty towards each other at times. Earlier this year, the two campaigns agreed to sign a unity pledge promising to support the party's nominee in the general election.
But tensions flared just hours later, after Trump issued a statement blasting Bannon. Vukmir's campaign called on Nicholson to disavow the Bannon endorsement. In response, Nicholson's camp chided Vukmir for having tried and failed to secure the endorsement.
Nicholson has the fundraising advantage coming into 2018, according to figures put out by both campaigns — Nicholson doubled up Vukmir in fundraising over 2017's final quarter, raising $800,000 to her $400,000. His campaign has announced it has $500,000 on hand, while a Vukmir spokesman told The Hill she will report a similar number in her bank account.
Both sit far behind Baldwin, who raised $2.8 million and has $7 million stored in her campaign account.
Updated at 12:06 p.m.