Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary

Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary
© Screenshot/Nicholson/Vukmir

Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir edged out businessman Kevin Nicholson in the Republican primary on Tuesday, setting her up for what is likely to be an expensive race to defeat Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinPrimary turnout soars in 2018 with Dems leading charge Senate rankings: 10 seats most likely to flip Five biggest surprises in midterm fight MORE (D-Wis.) in November.

With 90 percent of precincts reporting, the Associated Press declared Vukmir the winner, with 50 percent of the vote compared to 42.4 percent for Nicholson.

Vukmir had the backing of the Republican establishment in Wisconsin, with the state GOP voting overwhelmingly in May to give her the endorsement over Nicholson, who campaigned more as an outsider and was hurt by his previous past as a Democrat.

That gave her a vital edge over her primary challenger by allowing her access to the party’s vast infrastructure, though it opened her to attacks that she was part of the establishment.

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But Nicholson, a Marine Corps veteran and first-time candidate, had a powerful cadre of donors, both inside and outside Wisconsin.

Among them was Illinois businessman Richard Uihlein, whose outside groups pumped millions of dollars into the race to boost Nicholson. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last week that Uihlein-backed groups had spent nearly $11 million in the primary.

Vukmir has wealthy backers of her own as well. Wisconsin businesswoman Diane Hendricks has spent millions of dollars in support of Vukmir.

Vukmir campaigned as a lifelong Republican in her primary against Nicholson, who was a Democrat until the early 2000s. She frequently touted her alignment with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and namechecked her endorsement from the state GOP as she sought to cast herself as the more reliable conservative in the race.

But Nicholson accused Vukmir of being a political insider and insufficiently loyal to President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE, who did not endorse either candidate in the primary. A video surfaced last month showing Vukmir saying then-candidate Trump was "offensive to everyone," and she first backed Walker, then Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioNYT says it was unfair on Haley curtain story Rubio defends Haley over curtains story: Example of media pushing bias House lawmakers urge top intel official to probe national security threat of doctored videos MORE (R-Fla.) for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

However, both candidates have worked hard to promote their ties to Trump during the primary. In ads, Vukmir vowed to work to build the president’s long-promised border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and echoed Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp” in Washington.

Polling ahead of the Tuesday primary contest painted an unclear picture of the race. A Marquette Law School survey last month gave Vukmir a 2-point lead over Nicholson. But an NBC News/Marist poll released days later showed Nicholson leading by 10 points. The most recent poll – released by Emerson University late last month – showed the two candidates tied at 35 percent.

Vukmir’s win on Tuesday will pit her against Baldwin in November, setting up what is likely to be one of the most expensive Senate races in the country.

Baldwin is far ahead of Vukmir in the fundraising game. According to her most recent federal filing, the senator had $7.2 million in cash on hand – far more than the roughly $430,000 Vukmir reported in her pre-primary filing last month.

Republicans are hoping to oust Baldwin for good in Wisconsin, continuing the state’s shift to the right in recent years. Walker was first elected governor in 2010, and won reelection in 2014 by more than 100,000 votes. Trump beat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Clinton: Hard to ignore 'racial subtext of virtually everything Trump says' MORE in the state by less than 1 percent in 2016.

A recent NBC News/Marist poll suggests, however, that the state may be moving in a different direction. That survey showed only 34 percent of registered voters in the state supporting reelection for Walker, while 61 percent said they want to give a new person a chance in the governor’s mansion. That same poll also put Trump’s approval rating among registered voters at only 36 percent in Wisconsin.