Tammy Baldwin’s Opponent in Wisconsin Only Looks Like an Underdog

Newly minted Republican nominee Leah Vukmir has the GOP establishment and multiple conservative megadonors behind her.

Leah Vukmir shakes hands with a supporter in this campaign handout.
Leah Vukmir shakes hands with a supporter. Leah for Senate

The good news for Leah Vukmir keeps coming. The Wisconsin Republican won her Senate primary by 6 points over insurgent Kevin Nicholson last Tuesday. Soon after, Donald Trump, who had avoided taking sides in what was a nasty primary fight, endorsed the GOP establishment-approved Vukmir and volunteered to hit the stump on her behalf. Not long after that, Nicholson offered up his own support too. Then on Wednesday, a new poll found Vukmir in a statistical dead heat with Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin for the first time this year.

Baldwin remains the favorite and Vukmir, a state lawmaker for the past 16 years, will need all the GOP support she can get. But this immediate display of post-primary party unity, paired with evidence the race is tightening, will also bring Vukmir an undeniably valuable advantage: cold hard cash.

Senate Republicans, eager to mend fences after the primary fight, held a fundraiser for their newly minted nominee in Milwaukee on Friday. Co-hosting the big-dollar event was a pair of conservative megadonors who found themselves on opposites sides of the primary: Diane Hendricks, the owner of roofing distributor ABC Supply, who backed Vukmir; and Richard Uihlein, the owner of shipping wholesaler Uline, whose early investment turned Nicholson from a long shot into a serious contender in the race.

The unity event had been on the books for more than a month, so there is at least some question as to whether the publicity-adverse Uihlein will go all-in on Vukmir, who days before the primary accused the Illinois billionaire of “trying to buy” a Senate seat in Wisconsin with the nearly $11 million he spent in support of Nicholson. But there’s plenty of reasons to believe Uihlein will keep spending heavily in the state given how much a Baldwin defeat would cripple Democrats’ chance at reclaiming the Senate.

Uihlein (pronounced YOU-line) tends to prefer outlandish outsiders—think Roy Moore in Alabama or Jeanne Ives in Illinois—but he’s proved willing to support establishment-types like Vukmir before. Uihlein is also tight with Wisconsin’s GOP establishment, including Gov. Scott Walker and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and he and his wife were major Trump donors in 2016. (Priebus endorsed Vukmir in the primary; Walker remained officially neutral, but his wife endorsed Vukmir, and his son works on Vukmir’s campaign.)

Between Hendricks, Uihlein, and the Koch network—which has already spent more than $1 million attacking Baldwin—Vukmir can expect plenty of big-dollar support in her bid to take down the incumbent. Indeed, this is exactly what Baldwin was talking about when she took the unusual step early last month of hyping the possibility that she could lose this fall. Baldwin’s fear is that Senate Democrats will spend too much time and money protecting those incumbents seen as more vulnerable—say Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota or Joe Manchin in West Virginia—leaving her to fend for herself against an onslaught of outside spending.

You don’t have to go far back in Wisconsin history to see where that fear comes from. In 2016, former Sen. Russ Feingold was up big in the polls and appeared destined to reclaim his seat that November—until a surge of late spending from conservative groups boosted Republican Ron Johnson to re-election. This year, Baldwin has held a comfortable lead from the get-go in RealClearPolitics’ rolling average—she’s up an average of 11 points on Vukmir—though the newest poll, the first this month, found Baldwin with a within-the-margin-of-error 2-point lead, down 7 points from when those same Marquette University pollsters asked the question two months prior.

Like Feingold, Baldwin is a proud progressive in a purple state. She has nodded to Trump’s “America First” voters with her “Buy American” infrastructure proposal this year, but she’s still the most liberal of any of the 10 Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won. She supports Medicare for All, she’s campaigned with Bernie Sanders, and she voted against confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and was likewise quick to oppose Brett Kavanaugh. None of that makes her the radical that Republicans will paint her as, but it certainly gives conservative campaign ad makers plenty of grist to work with. The likes of Uihlein and Hendricks, meanwhile, will use their deep pockets to ensure those attacks find the biggest audience they can.