Republican Senate candidates sign unity pledge

Leah Vukmir/Kevin Nicholson

MADISON — The Wisconsin Republican candidates for U.S. Senate signed a unity pledge Wednesday put forward by Sen. Ron Johnson and the state party, amid a primary that has already sharply divided the GOP.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir, of Brookfield, and political newcomer Kevin Nicholson, a Delafield-based consultant for Fortune 500 companies, are facing each other in the August primary. The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November.

Both said they had no problem signing the first-of-its-kind pledge in Wisconsin requiring the loser of the primary to endorse the winner. For signing the pledge, both will immediately be given the names of likely delegates to the state convention who will be voting in May on who will get the Republican Party’s official endorsement.

That endorsement, which Johnson won in 2010, is significant because it provides the endorsed candidate with access to party infrastructure including volunteers, voter and donor lists, and other resources to bolster their campaign.

Vukmir is a close ally of Gov. Scott Walker and well-known among Republicans, having been in the Legislature since 2003. She’s been actively courting grass roots Republicans across the state, the very people who will gather at the convention in May to vote on which candidate to endorse.

Vukmir said she was “proud” to sign the pledge and had always backed the GOP nominee. Nicholson strategist Brandon Moody said Nicholson hoped all Republicans would unite to defeat Baldwin. Both candidates tweeted images of the signed pledge shortly after it was proposed.

Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Brad Bainum said the fact the party had to propose a unity pledge “shows how nasty their primary has become.”

Nicholson is making his first run for office, trying to overcome questions about his past as national president of the College Democrats of America in 2000. He now works for the management consulting firm ghSMART.

Nicholson’s campaign is bolstered by at least $3.5 million in donations to a super PAC from GOP mega-donor Richard Uihlein, the founder of Uline Corp. in Pleasant Prairie. Nicholson has won the backing of the national conservative group Club for Growth and Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News chairman and former White House strategist for President Donald Trump.

Nicholson is one of the pro-Trump candidates Bannon is backing as he tries to fill the Senate with enough loyalists to oust Mitch McConnell as majority leader. Bannon also strongly supported Republican Roy Moore, who last month lost Alabama’s Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones.

Johnson, in a statement explaining the need for the unity pledge, didn’t reference that race explicitly but cautioned against the influence of outsiders in the Wisconsin contest.

“We’ve all witnessed what happens when Washington, D.C.-based ‘political experts’ of all kinds get involved in U.S. Senate races,” Johnson said. “Here in Wisconsin, the grassroots have a track record of nominating candidates who reflect our values – not Washington’s – and we can do it again to defeat Tammy Baldwin this fall.”

The Club for Growth has tried to brand Vukmir as a “Republican in name only,” or RINO, even though she has a long record of voting for conservative measures in the Legislature, including Walker’s signature legislative achievements such as the Act 10 law that curtailed public union power and collective bargaining. Vukmir has argued that she’s been a “consistent conservative,” while raising questions about Nicholson’s past as a Democrat.

The unity pledge, under development by state party leaders since September, requires Nicholson and Vukmir to agree to conduct a campaign focused on defeating Baldwin and displaying mutual respect for their Republican competitors. By signing they also agree to seek the state party’s endorsement in a manner compliant with the process in place.