MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Leah Vukmir, a Wisconsin state senator and close ally to Gov. Scott Walker, defeated a former Marine who cast himself as a political outsider to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senate on Tuesday.
Vukmir, who beat political newcomer Kevin Nicholson despite being outspent by as much as $8 million, advances to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Republicans nationally have targeted Baldwin and outside groups have already spent millions in television ads attacking her.
Vukmir won the endorsement of the Wisconsin Republican Party and the backing of most prominent GOP officeholders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, on her way to victory. She ran as the proven conservative in the race, pointing to her long voting record in support of Republican priorities.
Both she and Nicholson ran as strong supporters of President Donald Trump. Vukmir overcame the release just two weeks before election of a 2016 tape of her making negative comments about Trump and saying voters would have to hold their noses before casting a ballot for him.
Vukmir said Republicans must come together if there’s any chance of defeating Baldwin.
“We have to unify the party,” Vukmir said in an interview. “I hope that we do come together otherwise we will end up with Tammy Baldwin.”
Vukmir said she will emphasize “over and over again” where Baldwin has let the state down, including opposing Trump’s nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Baldwin said in a statement that Vukmir was “bought and paid for” and that voters want someone who will stand up to special interests.
“Leah Vukmir has a long record of putting her corporate special interest backers ahead of hardworking Wisconsin families, making the choice clear this November,” Baldwin said.
Trump, who narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016 by less than 1 percentage point, did not endorse in the primary. Neither Nicholson nor Vukmir initially supported Trump in 2016, but both got behind him in the general election.
Nicholson, who was national head of the College Democrats and spoke at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, failed to overcome that past. He had argued that his combat experience in the U.S. Marines and work in the private sector helped lead to his conversion to the GOP. He also lost despite millions more being spent on his behalf by outside groups.
Vukmir, a 60-year-old retired nurse, won the Wisconsin Republican Party endorsement at its state convention in May and since then has been endorsed by a host of high-profile officeholders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Vukmir closely aligned herself with Walker, who officially stayed out of the race even though his son works for Vukmir and his wife held a fundraiser for her. Vukmir said that her experience in the Legislature, including voting for a host of GOP priorities like Walker’s anti-union Act 10 law, made her the proven conservative choice.
With Vukmir and Nicholson largely agreeing on the biggest issues, the race came down to a fight over their backgrounds, style, approach to the job and loyalty to Trump.
Michael Kruszka, a Republican from St. Francis, voted for Vukmir because thought Vukmir was a better candidate and ran better ads.
“I just liked her. Just personal preference,” he said. “Nothing really specific.”
Two GOP megadonors who were divided in the primary, Vukmir backer Diane Hendricks and Nicholson supporter Richard Uihlein, scheduled a unity fundraiser on Friday, a strong signal that Republicans plan to unite behind Vukmir.