Wauwatosa, Wisc. — Don’t count Leah Vukmir out yet.
While many political observers have written off the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin as unwinnable for the GOP, Vukmir, a Republican state senator, has already pulled off a big victory in a tight primary earlier this month — and she intends to give incumbent Democrat Tammy Baldwin a real challenge between now and November.
Vukmir, a Wisconsin state senator since 2010, has already weathered one of the toughest Republican primaries this cycle, defeating Marine Corps veteran Kevin Nicholson for the GOP nod last Tuesday.
President Trump, who eked out a marginal victory in Wisconsin in November 2016, declined to endorse either of the primary candidates. That left Nicholson — a businessman and former Democrat who billed himself as a political outsider in the mold of Trump — to build the core of his support from conservative groups outside the state. Heavy hitters such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Patriots backed him enthusiastically, and his fundraising numbers showed it.
But Vukmir dominated where it mattered most: the state’s GOP establishment. The Republican party in Wisconsin is one of the strongest and most influential state parties in the country, and as a long-time local politician with high name recognition, Vukmir was confident in her ability to win the support she needed at the polls. In May, she locked down the Republican party of Wisconsin’s endorsement with a whopping 72 percent of ballots, a resounding vote of confidence from state party insiders. She also managed to obtain key endorsements from Wisconsin congressman Sean Duffy and House speaker Paul Ryan. It proved to be more than enough, propelling her to victory over Nicholson on August 14 with nearly 49 percent of the vote to his 43 percent.
The way Vukmir tells it, she never intended to become involved in politics, much less to mount an underdog challenge to an incumbent Senate Democrat. Vukmir made a name for herself about ten years ago in the state legislature, ringleading an effort to bolster Wisconsin’s school-choice program, which had reached the enrollment limit set by the legislature and required an expansion to continue flourishing.
It was because of education, Vukmir says, that she became interested in local government in the first place. In the early 2000s, when Vukmir was still working full time as a pediatric nurse, her young daughter Elena brought home a school assignment on which she had made spelling errors that went uncorrected by the teacher. When Vukmir visited the school to inquire further, she says she was told that schoolwork wouldn’t be corrected until the second or third grade “in the interest of not stifling student creativity.”
Frustrated, Vukmir took her complaints to the local school board, and when she began to believe there were extensive problems with Wisconsin’s public-school system, she co-founded a school-reform group called Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools (PRESS). It was as a result of her activism with PRESS that she started making the political connections that led to her running for Governor Scott Walker’s old assembly seat more than 15 years ago.
It will likely turn out that Vukmir’s bitter primary fight against Nicholson this spring and summer was the easier of the two competitions she’ll face this cycle. Now, she has to go head-to-head with Baldwin, who is finishing her first term in the U.S. Senate, having been elected in 2012 after more than ten years in the House.
Unseating her is a daunting prospect, but it’s not impossible. In January, Morning Consult reported that Baldwin is one of the least popular Democrats in states Trump carried in 2016. Voters in Wisconsin were evenly split between approving and disapproving of her job performance, at 40 percent each. And as a first-term senator, she’s nowhere near entrenched enough to rest comfortably on a lengthy record of success.
The latest poll of the race, the first since last week’s primary, shows Baldwin leading Vukmir by only two points, 49 percent to 47. That’s a marked improvement from a late-July Emerson poll that gave Baldwin a 14-point lead. The UVA Center for Politics currently rates the race as “likely Democratic,” while Roll Call puts it at “leans Democratic.” In other words, while this isn’t the GOP’s best shot at flipping a Senate seat in November, it is at least a chance.
Meanwhile, according to NBC News–Marist polling from late July, President Trump’s approval/disapproval numbers in the state are underwater, at 36/52. Wisconsin’s Republicans eventually got on board the Trump–Pence ticket and handed the former businessman a slim victory over Hillary Clinton, but the state’s Republicans also overwhelmingly backed Ted Cruz during the 2016 GOP primary, choosing him over Trump by more than 13 points.
For Vukmir, then, the key to victory likely will lie not in aligning herself with Trump, but in doing exactly what she did during the Republican primary: making the case that she understands the needs of voters in her state better than her opponent.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Cruz’s margin of victory in the 2016 GOP primary in Wisconsin.
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