MADISON, Wis. — Accusations of insulting and childish behavior and campaign mismanagement flew Tuesday between the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin — three months after they signed a unity pledge agreeing to be respectful of one another.
The high-stakes primary between Kevin Nicholson and Leah Vukmir on Aug. 14 will determine who faces Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the fall election. Her seat is a top target for the GOP and more money by outside groups has been spent so far to try and topple her than any other incumbent senator in either party.
The latest sparring began with the release by the Nicholson campaign of a memo last week accusing Vukmir, a close ally of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, of relying too much on the "support of the party establishment." Nicholson, a former Democrat who is a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, is running as an outsider.
Vukmir's campaign called the Nicholson memo "childish and arrogant." Vukmir told reporters that it was "insulting" and an attack on the conservative activists who will gather at the state Republican Party convention next month to vote on who to endorse.
"It shows that my primary opponent really doesn't understand Wisconsin," Vukmir said. "Republicans in our state are not establishment Republicans, we're activist Republicans, and the gains that we have achieved under the leadership of Scott Walker could never have been done without the help of grass roots."
Walker, the two-term governor up for re-election in November, has not endorsed in the race. But his wife, Tonette, backs Vukmir and their son, Alex, works for her. Walker and Vukmir have long been allies, while Nicholson is running for office for the first time.
Nicholson, who was leader of the College Democrats when he was in college in 2000, has been trying to introduce himself to Republican voters in the state while also running as an outsider candidate in contrast to Vukmir. Nicholson's memo criticized "party insiders and establishment figures" for supporting Vukmir and not recognizing how attractive Nicholson is as a candidate.
Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody said Tuesday that the "political establishment" was trying to "rig the game for their pal" Vukmir. He didn't say how they were rigging it or immediately respond to emails asking for evidence.
"No matter how hard the political establishment tries, Kevin isn't going to play by their rules," Moody said. "He didn't ask their permission to run, and that offends them."
Asked if the campaigns felt the unity pledge had been violated, Vukmir campaign manager Jess Ward replied in a statement that Nicholson "insulted all Republicans who put their heart and soul into electing Scott Walker and Leah Vukmir and passing conservative reforms. He should focus on unifying the party rather than whining about his lack of grassroots support." Nicholson's campaign did not immediately respond to that question.
The leader of Wisconsin Next PAC, a group supporting Vukmir, noted that Nicholson was a former Democrat and called him a "phony."
"Nicholson's smears are just another red flag," said Stephan Thompson, who previously worked as a campaign manager for Walker.
Winning the state party endorsement makes party staff, field offices, voter contact information, money and other resources available. Vukmir has been aggressively courting Republican delegates, a move that Nicholson said has hurt her campaign's ability to raise money or prepare for taking on Baldwin.
Also on Tuesday, Baldwin reported raising $3.7 million in the first three months of the year — more than three-times as much as Nicholson. Baldwin had $7.8 million cash on hand at the end of March compared with $800,000 for Nicholson. Vukmir has yet to report.
Baldwin has already run three television ads, while outside groups have already spent nearly $3.1 million against Baldwin and $4.8 million in support of Nicholson, with another $909,000 for Vukmir, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Just over $1 million has been spent for Baldwin by outside groups. More than twice as much has been spent against Baldwin by outside groups than any other senator, according to the center.