Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir made it official Thursday that she’s running for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, casting herself as the only true conservative in a primary contest that includes a former Democrat.
Vukmir’s long-expected entry guarantees a Republican primary in the race to take on Democratic incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison. Former Marine Kevin Nicholson, who was national head of the College Democrats of America in 2000, is already running as a Republican and Madison businessman Eric Hovde is considering getting into the race.
Vukmir made clear in her announcement video Thursday that she intends to point to her long public record as she contrasts herself with Nicholson and Hovde, neither of whom has ever been in office.
“I am the only clear, consistent conservative in this race,” Vukmir said in the video. “I have a track record that people know. They can count on me. I’ve gotten things done.”
Vukmir, 59, is a registered nurse from Brookfield, first elected to the Assembly in 2002 and then the Senate in 2010. She is a member of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee and has been an outspoken supporter of repealing the prevailing wage law, expanding taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school students and those with disabilities and crime victims’ rights.
Vukmir was among the senators who voted to pass the bill in 2011 that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers and forced them to pay more for their pension and health benefits, a move that Gov. Scott Walker and conservatives have said was needed to help balance the state budget and reduce school and local governments’ costs.
The debate over the measure, known as Act 10, resulted in weeks of protests at the Capitol. Democratic senators fled the state in a failed effort to stop its passage.
Vukmir referenced that fight in her announcement video, which includes footage of people shouting “shame!” and rushing past police during protests at the Capitol.
“I’m proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with Governor Walker as we’ve passed conservative change in Wisconsin,” Vukmir said in the video. “It wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do.”
Vukmir has been working for months traveling the country laying the groundwork for the expected Senate run. She has landed Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks as her finance co-chair and Mary Kohler will be on her campaign committee. Kohler is the widow of Terry Kohler, a Republican activist who was president of Windway Capital Corp.
Nicholson, of Delafield, won the early endorsement of national conservative group Club for Growth and a super PAC backing him fueled by a $2 million contribution from former Uline Corp. founder Richard Uihlein reported in July that it had raised $3.5 million.
Nicholson campaign spokesman Michael Antonopoulos emphasized Nicholson’s service in the Marines in a statement saying that he respects the right of anyone to run for office, without specifically referring to Vukmir.
Hovde said Thursday he hoped to make a decision within the next 45 days.
“This is a crazy political world unlike any we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “I’ve got to get a lot of data, have a lot of conversations.”
Baldwin is in her first term and viewed as a top GOP target nationally as they look to retain majority control of the Senate. She was elected in 2012, the same year then-President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin on his way to re-election. In 2018, Baldwin will be running on the same ballot as Walker as he seeks re-election to a third term.
Baldwin’s campaign spokesman Scott Spector did not directly address Vukmir’s getting into the race, but instead said Baldwin is “fighting for Wisconsin, not the wealthy and Washington special interests.”
Vukmir faced no Democratic opponent in the 2014 general election. She beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Jim Sullivan to take her state Senate seat in 2010, winning by just over 4 points.