One of the most overused yet underappreciated clichés when applied to politics is: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Republican candidates for the nomination to challenge Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin in November are well aware of what happened in the 2012 U.S. Senate primary in Wisconsin. It appears they have little interest in learning anything from that experience.
The Cold War between State Senator Leah Vukmir and Milwaukee area businessman and Marine vet Kevin Nicholson went to DEFCON 1 this week vis a vis unsightly emails each campaign sent to the media. Team Nicholson fired the first shot, sending an email to media outlets attacking Vukmir for not attending an upcoming debate in person, sending a video message instead. The Vukmir campaign says she has a conflict. Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody didn’t see it that way:
“Thanks, Leah! We are so excited that you will send a 2 minute canned video response rather than stand on a stage with your opponent to talk about the issues,” Moody wrote in his email. “A real profile in courage.”
He added: “I think it’s fair to ask what, in all honesty, is happening in Leah’s world that she can’t handle a debate? She wants to be in the United States Senate — the world’s most deliberative body — where a lot of debating occurs last time I checked.”
Vukmir spokesperson Jess Ward returned fire with an email of her own to the media, pointing out there are proposed debates to which Nicholson won’t commit:
“He can’t keep his facts straight — about when he became a Democrat or how often he voted Democrat,” Ward wrote. “It’s really quite bizarre. He burns through explanations almost as fast as he blows through campaign cash on direct mail fundraising.”
She ended by calling Moody a “kid.”
“Anyways, Brandon is a good kid,” she wrote. “We wish him the best of luck at the Wisconsin GOP convention when Kevin finally gets acquainted with the Wisconsin grass-roots activists.”
Apparently, in the age of Trump, the high road is truly the road less-traveled. Yes, the Nicholson camp started this juvenile exchange. But Ward’s response could have reflected the temperament one looks for in a U.S. Senate candidate. It didn’t. The only improvement this primary shows over 2012 so far is that there are fewer candidates in the field to behave badly. 2012 saw a bruising four-way contest that saw former Governor Tommy Thompson edge out Madison businessman Eric Hovde for the nomination. Thompson came out of the primary on top and then had a series of unfortunate stumbles in the general campaign.
It’s frustrating that the Republicans don’t seem to understand the challenge the party faces in November. Election after election, including Pennsylvania’s House contest Tuesday, shows that Democratic enthusiasm is off the charts. And yes, anti-Trump sentiment is driving it. Running away from President Trump isn’t the answer. But neither is emulating him. Vukmir has a robust state legislative record on which to run. Nicholson has a compelling story to tell. When one campaign decides to resort to childish taunting, the other should rise above it.
Hovde is contemplating enter the primary race. All indications are that he will (Full disclosure: Eric Hovde is a friend who will have my support if he enters the race). Vukmir and Nicholson may want to consider another political history lesson: 1992. Congressman Jim Moody and businessman Joe Checota were vying for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Senator Bob Kasten. Cheocta ran a self-financed campaign that shot him to the top of the polls. Moody responded with a scorched earth assault. It may have been the ugliest campaign Wisconsin had seen up to that point.
Also on the primary ballot was a little known state senator. As Moody and Checota slugged it out, this state senator ran a modest, humor-based media campaign. Suddenly, the polls showed that obscure state lawmaker, Russ Feingold, in the lead. Feingold went on to win the nomination and defeat Kasten. Vukmir and Nicholson are creating an opportunity for Hovde to pull a Feingold. I can tell you that if he enters the race, Hovde will run an optimistically themed campaign that will focus on why he would be a better senator for Wisconsin than Baldwin has been for the past six years.
Many observers feel Hovde has waited too long to have a realistic chance to win the nomination. There are two reasons to question that conventional wisdom. First, Hovde will self-fund, as he did in 2012. Personal wealth can close a gap quickly. Second, intended or not, Hovde’s delay in deciding has given the race between Vukmir and Nicholson to grown unsightly. If he does run, his campaign should be built on a tone that presents a striking contrast to the race Vukmir and Nicholson are engaged in.
Hovde, unlike Feingold, is a known entity to voters statewide so the comparison is imperfect. And Moody and Checota largely ignored Feingold. Vukmir and Nicholson won’t ignore Hovde. But the opportunity for Hovde is there nonetheless. Whether Hovde enters the race or not, Republicans facing severe headwinds in November would benefit from an immediate course change from Nicholson and Vukmir.