As top donor calls for Kevin Nicholson to enter governor’s race, a messy and expensive GOP primary looms

Kevin Nicholson
Kevin Nicholson, at 2018 state GOP convention

MADISON — Wisconsin could see a messy and expensive Republican primary in the governor’s race this fall, something that party leadership and political experts say would be a liability in what’s certain to be a close race.

On Monday, heavyweight political donor Dick Uihlein put out a statement encouraging failed Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson to formally get into the race across from frontrunner and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

“I strongly urge Kevin Nicholson to run for Governor of Wisconsin,” Uihlein wrote. “There are very few people that can shake things up in the state; Kevin is one of them.”

The fifth-biggest political individual donor in the country during the 2020 election, Uihlein previously backed Nicholson with nearly $11 million in his failed 2018 Senate bid where he lost his primary to state senator Leah Vukmir. (She ultimately lost the general election to incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin.)

In 2020, he was the fifth-largest individual political donor to outside spending groups, according to the nonpartisan Open Secrets group that tracks political spending in the country.

Uihlein issued his statement days after a public war of words between Nicholson and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, after Vos publicly asked Nicholson not to run against Republican favorite Rebecca Kleefisch last week.

“If Kevin Nicholson is listening — You need to not run for governor,” Vos said in a public forum.

Nicholson, widely expected to formally jump into the race at any moment, retorted on Twitter, “Our elections are a mess, law & order is eroding, schools are failing. How about you focus on doing your job?”

Expensive primary could complicate Republican gubernatorial bid

Currently, former Lt. Gov. Kleefisch is the only major Republican name in the race. Raising $3.3 million in the first four months of her campaign, her cash haul was comparable to Gov. Tony Evers for the same quarter. He finished the year with a $10 million haul.

Apart from her wide name recognition, Republican strategists say she brings campaign experience and expertise that other candidates simply can’t match.

“She started a long time ago running in this race,” Republican strategist and former state GOP chair Andrew Hitt said. “She has a field operation and a grassroots program that’s far, far advanced of anyone else getting in this race.”

Political experts say Nicholson’s expected presence in the primary could complicate the race for Kleefisch, in a race that Republicans believe is theirs to win given the current political climate and the established political trend of the White House incumbent party doing poorly in midterm elections.

“It’s not just that she’ll have an opponent in the Republican primary, it’s that it would be a well-funded opponent. She would have to spend probably millions just in the primary,” University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden explained. “Meanwhile, Tony Evers is focused solely on November. He doesn’t have a primary opponent. All his efforts, his strategy, fundraising is all geared to whoever that Republican nominee is in the fall.”

That’s a big reason behind Vos publicly asking Nicholson to avoid the race, although Nicholson hasn’t made any indications he’ll listen to the state’s top legislature Republican. Part of the draw of the primary, Hitt explained, is a sense that the fall elections will be the perfect timing for ambitious Republicans.

“Republicans feel like they have a pretty good if not great tailwind at their backs right now and are looking to–is this another 2010? Is this a 1994 revolution?” he explained. “People look at this race, they look at the political climate, and they think ‘Hey, this is my chance.'”

For Democrats, a must-win 

While every race is, in theory, a must-win, Democrats see the 2022 governor’s bid as particularly crucial amid concerns about voting rights and ongoing investigations and reviews of the confirmed 2020 election results in Wisconsin.

“This is absolutely a critical race for the people of Wisconsin,” Democratic strategist and former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Evers said. “We have our democracy at stake, and Governor Evers is the last line of defense when you have Republicans who want to interfere with our right to vote.”

In a state where massive turnout in rural communities and suburban shifts combined to boost Trump to a narrow Wisconsin victory in 2016, she says the biggest takeaway from recent elections is fighting for Democratic votes across the state–not just blue strongholds.

“I think that what Democrats continue to focus on is competing for every vote. In the past, some Democrats felt like they couldn’t make headways in rural communities,” she said. “But what we’re seeing in (the 2018 gubernatorial) election and since is that the issues that Evers is talking about, that Democrats are talking about up and down the ticket–they really resonate with voters.”

In the face of declining approval ratings for both Gov. Evers and President Joe Biden, as well as the historic difficulties of midterm elections for the party in power, Burden says a Democratic victory in the governor’s mansion is still a long shot.

“Democrats will have to have everything go right for them to hold on to what they’ve got: to not lose the governor’s mansion and not lose seats in the state legislature,” Burden explained. Whoever wins, given the Republican-controlled makeup of the legislature, the results for Wisconsin politics are massive.

“It’s going to have an immediate and substantial impact on what public policy in Wisconsin looks like, starting next year.”