MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir won the endorsement of the state party Saturday, besting a better-financed opponent who's running as an outsider and close ally of President Donald Trump.
The nod for the state senator gives her candidacy a boost against challenger Kevin Nicholson, but it doesn't make her the nominee. That will be decided in the Aug. 14 primary, with the winner moving on to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The race is a top target for Republicans and spending by outside groups has already topped $11 million, more than twice as much as any other Senate race in the country.
Vukmir focused her candidacy on getting the endorsement, putting more than 61,000 miles on her car traveling the state to win over party delegates. A 15-year veteran of the state Legislature, she's close with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and has been an advocate for his agenda. Walker has not endorsed in the primary but his son works as an adviser on Vukmir's campaign.
Vukmir, a retired nurse, cast herself as a true "conservative fighter" who came from the party's grass roots and would stand with Trump, build a wall along the Mexico border, oppose abortion rights and strengthen the military. She highlighted her stand against public sector unions with Walker, saying she fought through "blood, sweat and tears" and death threats to push the Republican agenda.
"It's about standing your ground and fighting like the underdog for what you believe in," Vukmir said. "That's the problem with Washington, we don't have enough fighters."
Vukmir said Republicans could trust she would take the fight to Baldwin.
"We must never shy away from the battle," she said. "We must elect those with a proven track record. We need a proven fighter."
Nicholson all but conceded that Vukmir would win the endorsement, saying in the weeks leading up to the vote that Vukmir getting anything less than 85 percent backing would be a defeat. Vukmir won with 73 percent compared to 27 percent for Nicholson. It took 60 percent to get the endorsement.
Nicholson told delegates he will fight against a system that benefits insiders and the political class that doesn't serve citizens.
"I will fight against the Washington establishment and the practices of the Senate that stop progress," he said. "It will take outsiders to push back on this political aristocracy in Washington."
Nicholson is a political newcomer who has struggled to win over some skeptical GOP faithful due to his past as head of the national College Democrats in 2000. Nicholson said his experience serving as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then his current work as a business consultant, helped lead to his conversion to the Republican Party.
"I had to walk the path that I did to become the conservative I am today," he said.
Both Nicholson and Vukmir are supporters of Trump, but Nicholson has tried to tie himself more closely to the president. He initially touted an endorsement from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and the Great America PAC, but later cast it as an endorsement from Ed Rollins, an adviser to former President Ronald Reagan.
Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, also the former Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, spoke at the convention in support of Vukmir.
Nicholson's candidacy has benefited from third party groups that have spent $6 million supporting him and $3.1 million attacking Baldwin so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Vukmir has received just $935,000.
Nicholson has also led in fundraising — with $800,000 cash on hand as of April compared with about $650,000 for Vukmir. She raised nearly $600,000 the first three months of the year while Nicholson brought in more than $1 million.
The fundraising and spending disparity is what made winning the party endorsement — which opens Wisconsin Republican Party resources including field offices, staff, donor lists and other infrastructure — all the more important to Vukmir.