The very first question of Thursday’s Republican U.S. Senate primary debate, hosted by UW-Milwaukee, set the tone for the rest of the evening: What makes you more conservative than your opponent?
With a recent Marquette University Law School poll earmarking the race between establishment-backed state Sen. Leah Vukmir and upstart outsider Kevin Nicholson a statistical dead heat, the two candidates spent the night attempting to prove their conservative bonafides ahead of the Aug. 14 primary.
They spoke to undecided Republican voters – estimated by the Marquette poll to be a full third of those likely to vote in the Republican primary – to be sure. But each candidate spoke as if they had a very specific target for their rhetoric in mind: President Donald Trump. In a neck-and-neck bout, there is one knockout punch still waiting to be delivered in the form of a a 280-character-or-less endorsement from the man in the Oval Office.
For a debate, there was not much — if any — disagreement. More than anything, support for the president was each candidate’s central platform.
“A liberal elite media wants nothing more than to tear this president down,” Vukmir said. “I want to see the president succeed. Because when he succeeds, America succeeds.”
Vukmir touted her longstanding track record of conservative policymaking, doubling as both a personal boast and a not-too-subtle jab at Nicholson’s college career as an ascendant young Democrat on the national stage around the turn of the century.
Nicholson, meanwhile, drew comparisons between his and Trump’s business background, liberal-to-conservative political evolution, and status removed from the D.C. establishment class.
“The president needs reinforcements,” Nicholson noted in his closing statements. “It’s going to take an outsider to join him to get it done.”
Unlike the previous debate in April, which culminated in a verbal sparring match between the two candidates, fireworks Thursday were few and far between, as both stuck to their mostly-identical policy platforms: fervently anti-abortion, vowing to oppose tax hikes, and tackling policymaking with an overall limited-government approach.
One policy both candidates adamantly supported: building a wall along the southern border.
“We need to fix the entire system,” Nicholson said, when asked about a path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. “It is a process. … Build a wall, stop illegal immigration. And then we can put the fixes in place that include everybody that falls under what you call DACA.”
Vukmir, meanwhile, took the opportunity to further stress her dedication to Trump’s polices.
“The president stands for the calls for building that wall,” Vukmir said. “I’m going to stand with him, then we are going to fix the broken legal system.”
When challenged on her opposition to chain-migration policies, which moderator Shannon Sims of WTMJ-TV noted likely allowed Vukmir’s own family to immigrate from Greece, the candidate didn’t waver.
“The times were different then,” Vukmir said, before echoing much of Trump’s own usual talking points on the issue. “Right now we have a situation where we have so many illegal immigrants in this country, and they’re taking jobs away from Americans. People are frustrated that they are bringing crime into this country. We know about MS-13, and the gangs that are coming. … We need to first build a wall, and then talk about a process to fix the immigration system.”
After an hour of head-to-head debate, Vukmir and Nicholson were joined on stage for an additional 30 minutes by a trio of low-polling fringe candidates: Griffin Jones, George Lucia and the Santa Claus-lookalike Charles Barman, who, unlike his four all-business opponents, dressed in a cut-off tee shirt and jeans.
As the crowd left UW-Milwaukee’s Mainstage Theater after the debate, a consensus was clear: any voter whose mind was already made up had little reason to rethink that choice.
“[Vukmir] is a proven conservative, and [Nicholson] is rather an unknown quantity, to me,” said Sandy Hersh, a 63-year-old Wales resident. “For this big of a vote, that’s important.”
“It’s a big ask,” added Gary Springer, Hersh’s 64-year-old friend from Mequon. “He was a major player in the Democratic party. … It’s a big conversion.”
Pat Kneeland, a 67-year-old, Nicholson-leaning Grafton resident who also attended the debate, identified with the former Democrat’s political evolution. He did note, however, that on a policy level the two were almost always in agreement.
“They were very similar in their opinions,” Kneeland remarked after the debate. “I just thought he would be a stronger force in Washington, where it’s a really hard place to get things done. I love the fact that he’s not an insider. … That’s very appealing to me.”