Saturday, September 23, 2017

Wisconsin-- The Center Of The Political Universe For 2018?


I had the impression that even before Randy Bryce realized he could do the "impossible" and actually beat Paul Ryan in Wisconsin's southeast congressional district, he was willing to run and rally the base and turn out the vote in the district so that Democrats would go to the polls and vote in other elections, especially Tammy Baldwin's tough reelection campaign for U.S. Senate. One basic lesson the DCCC and DNC have steadfastly refused to learn-- or even understand-- is that when there are candidates down-ballot generating local enthusiasm and excitement, it helps candidates running hop-ballot (like for governor and senator). Bryce is a strategic thinker. The DCCC isn't; the people running it are just clueless money-grubbing careerists.

Yesterday, Randy Bryce was a featured speaker at the International Association of Machinists' annual statewide convention at the Manitowoc Holiday Inn, 2 counties up Lake Michigan from WI-01. Frank Schaeffer, who's beginning a new project to help flip Congress from reactionary red to progressive blue, was with Bryce filming and interviewing. The DCCC literally had no plans for contesting any seats in Wisconsin in the 2018 cycle (because their only lame metric for targeting was to look to see where Clinton beat Trump and contest those districts, something they will regret on November 7, 2018.) I'm not saying they shouldn't use that metric at all, but that they should also use another-- one that would have them contesting seats in districts-- like WI-01 and other Wisconsin districts-- where Hillary was the wrong candidate and lost to Trump but where primary day saw Bernie not just outpolling Hillary but also outpolling Trump. Example: if you want to win WI-01, you have to win the 4 key counties that contribute most of the votes: Racine, where Trump beat Hillary 49.8% to 45.4%, Kenosha, where Trump beat Hillary 47.5% to 47.2%, Walworth, where Trump beat Hilary 57.0% to 37.0% and Rock, where Hillary managed to eke out a 52.4% to 42.0% win. But this is what happened on primary day:
Kenosha Co.- Bernie- 14,612; Hillary- 10,871; Trumpanzee- 11,139
Racine Co.- Bernie- 14,651; Hillary- 14,086; Trumpanzee- 11,756
Rock Co.- Bernie- 17,337; Hillary- 11,248; Trumpanzee- 10,264
Walworth Co.- Bernie-8,405 ; Hillary- 5,174; Trumpanzee- 7,534
Bernie country-- and yes, he certainly would have beat Trump in WI-01, where Bryce was one of his surrogates. But those are inconvenient facts the DCCC refuses to consider when they make preliminary plans for allocating resources for 2018 races. They removed Wisconsin from their maps. Now, however, by dint of Bryce's own talents as a natural leader-- and the local and national enthusiasm for his appeal-- Wisconsin is front-and-center for 2018... despite Pelosi's wishes to continue the long and sordid DCCC policy of protecting Paul Ryan's reelection efforts.

And the excitement in Wisconsin isn't just centered on the David and Goliath Bryce vs Ryan contest. The Republicans are struggling to even find a candidate to go up against Baldwin in the Senate race. Although every Democrat's favorite GOP candidate, lunatic for Sheriff David Clarke, hasn't declared yet, two third tier candidates have: state Senate Assistant Majority Leader, Leah Vukmir, and Kevin Nicholson, a rich businessman. (Also some guy named John Schiess.) Some Republicans are holding out for possible runs by one of 2 unaccomplished congressional backbenchers, Mike Gallagher or Glenn Grothman (who has now, finally, moved out of his parents' basement) or by Eric Hovde, a rich businessman who ran and lost for the Senate in 2012. The lunatic fringe of the party is giving up on Clarke and starting to coalesce around Nicholson-- he's been endorsed by psycho-warmonger John Bolton and by the Club for Growth. Friday Politico featured the little-known Nicholson on it's front cover. Most important, explained Politico, is the support Nicholson won before entering the race: far right Wisconsin money-bags Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, "titans in the conservative donor universe. The two extremist lunatics "parked $3.5 million in a super PAC for him, baffling rivals in both parties and lending the little-known, first-time candidate instant viability."

Not many voters in Wisconsin know who Nicholson is but, like Paul Ryan 2 decades ago, he appears to be a readymade, prefab candidate invented to carry a right-wing message: "With his Hollywood looks, military pedigree, Ivy League smarts and private-sector proficiency, Nicholson could have been built in a GOP laboratory." The same GOP laboratory that turned out Ryan. Never mind that he's never won a vote for anything before (other than when he ran for president of the College Democrats of America), with Ryan's sheen irrepairably tarnished, the Uihleins and other behind-the-cutain Republicans see Nicholson as an eventual presidential contender. "He is, for comparison’s sake, a wealthier, better-looking and more charming version of Senator Tom Cotton. 'Kevin is even more impressive in person than he is on paper,' gushes David McIntosh, the former [very, very, very far right] congressman and Club for Growth president."

Nicholson was a DNC hack and spoke, boringly, at the Democratic Convention-- touting his commitment to abortion and Al Gore. He was a typically clueless, anti-progressive conservaDem in the mold of garbage like Joe Lieberman. He "felt fundamentally betrayed by modern liberalism and went searching for something else," emerging in the GOP as a right-wing nut. Plenty of offal-eating Blue Dogs have done the same thing over the years.
The spell Nicholson has cast over a number of influential Republicans is a source of wonder in Wisconsin these days. Yet people who know him say the explanation isn’t terribly complicated. “He’s a McKinsey consultant. His job is to walk in a room of powerful, wealthy people, blow them away, and get their money,” says one state official who is friendly with Nicholson but obligated to remain neutral in the race. “And he’s very, very good at it.” Another person who spoke on condition of anonymity-- a longtime friend of Nicholson’s who is a Democrat, and therefore loath to either hurt or help him with an on-record statement-- says none of Nicholson’s early success is surprising. “I’m guessing once he managed somehow to get in front of Dick Uihlein, he just impressed the shit out of him. I’m sure he laid out the case and convinced them he could make it happen,” the friend says. “I’ve seen it-- the guy’s fucking incredible. Nobody knows him, and he’s arguably the front-runner for the nomination for U.S. Senate.”

But there’s a glaring flaw in his otherwise immaculate résumé: Kevin Nicholson hasn’t always been a Republican. He was once an aspiring politician and rising star-- in the Democratic Party.
He'd tries claiming his experience as a former Democrat-- he was never really a rising star except in his own mind and he's been dreaming about running for the White House since he was a teenager and even joined the Marines to burnish a future résumé-- is what made him a conservative, just the way it did with Reagan. That's what they all say. It probably won't hurt him much with in the context of such a lackluster field.
Months of gossip percolating through Wisconsin’s political class have produced two distinct and diverging judgments of Nicholson, revolving around the sincerity of his conversion and the scope of his ambition. The generous view holds, more or less, that Nicholson quit politics because he felt abandoned by the Democratic Party, discovered his inner conservatism and re-emerged serendipitously back home just as Wisconsin’s GOP bench was growing a bit stale. The cynical view is essentially that Nicholson has wanted to be president since he was a teenager and has few core convictions; that he saw the demographic winds shift during his time in D.C. and decided the clearest path to public office as a straight, white man in Wisconsin would be as a Republican.

...It’s risky to start poking holes in a decorated veteran’s backstory, and Nicholson’s GOP adversaries have no need to get overly personal-- at least, not yet. They believe, in a state where Republicans have radically transformed government through seven years of brutal party-line warfare, that Nicholson’s new-to-the-team routine won’t fly with voters. Wisconsin is one state where there is little daylight between the grass roots and establishment; outsider rhetoric can be ineffective bordering on counterproductive. Against that backdrop, Nicholson’s early traction has some Republicans concerned, if a bit annoyed.

When Vukmir learns that I’m here to write about Nicholson, she rolls her eyes. “What do you know about him?” I ask. She shakes her head. “What you’ve heard him say. That’s about all I know.” Vukmir, who sits on the powerful Joint Finance Committee, was waiting for the state’s budget to pass before officially announcing her Senate campaign, but couldn’t afford to wait any longer and wound up launching in the first week of September. But I know, speaking to her in Greenville weeks earlier, she’s here for the same reason as Nicholson... “I don’t know what Kevin’s conservative record is, other than him saying he’s a conservative,” Vukmir says. “So he’ll have to get people to believe that.”

The story of Nicholson's transformation starts with Jessie Roos. They met at the University of Minnesota, and according to mutual friends, forged a relationship owing to equal parts romance, intellectual admiration and political drive. They were inseparable, with Roos pulling double-duty as Nicholson’s girlfriend and most trusted adviser. This arrangement caused uneasiness in College Democrat circles as Nicholson campaigned to lead the national organization. The reason: Roos was among the most prominent conservatives on campus. In 1998, she and four other students were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the university; they objected, the Associated Press reported at the time, “to sending $1.04 per quarter in mandatory student fees to the Queer Student Cultural Center, La Raza Student Cultural Center and University-YW (Young Women), groups they say promote homosexuality, communism and abortion.”

Despite their diverging politics, Roos was Nicholson’s “north star,” a phrase used by two separate college friends to describe her influence over him. The couple broke up and reconciled repeatedly, in part because Roos feared Nicholson might never acknowledge the truth about himself: that deep down, he was a conservative. The relationship nearly ended, permanently, when Nicholson advocated “a woman’s right to choose” in his convention speech. Reviewing the text with him by phone from Minnesota, Roos went ballistic when she heard the line and demanded Nicholson remove it. He refused. “We got in a fight. I knew at the time it was not something he had thought extensively about,” she recalls to me. “And that definitely was a piece of the conversation in terms of courtship and leading toward marriage, because that was a no-go zone for me.”

Today they can claim a happy ending: Nicholson ultimately turned anti-abortion, the couple got married, had three children and are now simpatico in their worldviews. Jessie Roos is now Jessie Nicholson, herself a political pro with a communications background: She was a George W. Bush political appointee at the Department of Agriculture and previously worked for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as well as Republicans in the Statehouse. It takes five minutes around the Nicholsons to realize that Jessie, who led her husband's conversion, will be guiding his Senate campaign more than any consultant or strategist. “We are partners, and we both have different roles to play,” she says, smiling. “I know how I think things should go.”

She’ll have to help her husband craft sharper answers to questions about his background, including that convention speech. Before heading to Wisconsin, I heard Nicholson say on multiple radio shows that someone “put a piece of paper in front of me” containing the abortion rights language. As we ride together, I ask a simple question: Did you write that line, or was it written for you? “Um, let’s start with the most important thing,” he replies. “I’m responsible because I said it. So don’t think that I’m equivocating on this.” Sure, I say, but it’s important to nail down: Did you write it? “Yeah-- so, no. The bottom line is ... ” Nicholson stops and swallows hard. His face is flushed. “Cognizant of the fact you’re going to write this out, I want to be clear: I own it, ‘cause I was a young person but I was an adult, and I should have known better. Period.” He continues: “I wrote a speech which was pretty innocuous. It was about generational differences. ... That was sent to the DNC, it was recut, and that particular phrase was inserted.” So, I ask him, you didn’t write that phrase about abortion? “Nope. Well it-- don’t get me as a bullshitter here. I own it. I said it.”

Unless the DNC is hanging on to 17-year-old emails containing Nicholson’s original draft, nobody can prove who wrote that line. But Nicholson’s convoluted story only invites further scrutiny of his record on abortion. Already, Democrats have released the EMILY’s List letter, as well as the College Democrats’ abortion rights platform that was adopted on Nicholson’s watch. I found something else, having heard from friends about his frequent appearances on MSNBC during the 2000 campaign: a transcript of “Equal Time,” on July 14, 2000, in which Nicholson debated Scott Stewart, then the chairman of the College Republicans. Discussing the Supreme Court, 22-year-old Nicholson said, “Obviously, the next president is going to have a huge impact on the court. And I personally believe, and the people in my organization, the College Democrats of America, believe that Al Gore needs to be elected in order to ensure that the simple issues, base issues like a woman’s right to choose, must be protected.”

...His closest ally was Mike Tate, who led the Wisconsin College Democrats and later served as chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party during Baldwin’s victorious Senate run in 2012. Nicholson enlisted Tate’s support when running in college and the two became fast friends, having grown up 12 miles apart in suburban Milwaukee. They roomed together at the 2000 convention and Tate often crashed at Nicholson’s place in D.C. “He had his whole life planned out. He was going to serve in the military, come back to Wisconsin and run for office,” Tate says. “My biggest disappointment is that he’s doing it as a Republican.” He tells me Nicholson “gets up every day with a mission” and “should absolutely be taken seriously” by Democrats, even if Tate still doesn’t understand why his friend switched parties. He recalls one late-night college conversation that he can’t shake. “I was once foolish enough to think I wanted to run for office, and he talked to me about how Humphrey and Mondale were partners in Minnesota politics for decades,” Tate says. “And he said, ‘Mike, that could be you and me in Wisconsin.’”

Nicholson today is embarrassed by his former self, telling me three times that he was a “punk kid.” This is precisely how some fellow College Democrats remember him: as the cold, cocky, unpopular leader of their organization. “I did not like Kevin, and he would be the first person to tell you that,” says Alexandra Acker-Lyons, who was Nicholson’s vice president and is today a Democratic consultant. “Kevin is that guy-- D.C. is crawling with them, summer interns and Hill staffers-- who you know wants to run for office, and you know isn’t doing it for the right reasons.”

...When he returned stateside in November 2007, Nicholson says, he and his wife went all-in for John McCain. They put up yard signs and made multiple donations to his campaign totaling $500; Nicholson attended a McCain rally and was photographed sitting behind the Republican candidate. As with so much else in Nicholson’s past, however, there is nothing simple about his official switch to Republicanism. He says he voted for Bush in 2004; yet he registered as a Democrat when he moved to North Carolina in 2005. This caused an even bigger headache: When he went to vote for McCain in the May 2008 presidential primary, state law disallowed same-day registration switching. So he says he voted “no preference” in the Democratic primary. The problem: records from Nicholson’s precinct that day suggest nobody voted “no preference.” This doesn’t mean he’s lying about backing McCain, and Nicholson can be excused for rolling his eyes at questions about “paper ballots in North Carolina 10 years ago.” But it’s another example of biographical vulnerability, even as his version of events is pretty convincing. “I would ask people to use common sense,” Nicholson tells me. “I was a Marine, and I was giving my vote, my money, my support and my time to... the person who was going to be commanding me in a short period of time in combat.”

...If financial might is fueling much of the hype surrounding Nicholson, there are reasons to suspect he won’t live up to it. His name identification in Wisconsin is all but nonexistent. Vukmir has her own deep-pocketed supporters, starting with Diane Hendricks, the richest Republican donor in the state. Eric Hovde, a self-funding businessman who finished a close second in the 2012 primary, is weighing another run. The pivotal endorsements in Wisconsin come not from national groups such as the Club for Growth (whose endorsed candidate in 2012 finished third in the GOP primary), but from conservative talk-radio in the southeast corner of the state, which is Vukmir’s territory. His biographical vulnerabilities aside, Nicholson is raw as a retail campaigner and can come across as programmed and mistake-averse. If he wins the nomination and squares off against Baldwin-- who is certainly beatable, having run behind Obama in 2012-- Nicholson will have to spend next fall tap-dancing around Trump (about whom he’s been advised not to utter a negative word). He’ll also have to show a better command of the issues: Nicholson is playing to a perceived strength by attacking Baldwin’s poor handling of a Veterans Affairs scandal in Wisconsin, but when I ask him about the VA accountability bill that Trump signed into law this summer, Nicholson admits to not knowing the details.

All of that said, and given his manifest upside as a candidate, I was stunned at the degree to which the most prominent Wisconsin Republicans I spoke with-- in particular, close allies of Speaker Paul Ryan, Governor Scott Walker and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus-- were dismissive of Nicholson’s chances. Some of this skepticism, in both Madison and Washington, speaks to the pack mentality of veteran politicians trusting only one of their own. There’s also an element of jealousy: Out-of-nowhere phenoms like Nicholson aren’t often well received by members of the party who have spent years paying their dues. But above all, the rookie candidate must overcome a fundamental deficit of trust: In countless conversations, people who have met with Nicholson tell me they aren’t convinced he is truly a conservative.

“I’m not buying it,” Scott Fitzgerald, the state Senate majority leader, tells me. Fitzgerald, who has announced his support of Vukmir, says Nicholson reached out to him earlier this year after Rep. Sean Duffy, a presumed challenger to Baldwin, opted not to run. They had a cup of coffee, and Fitzgerald saw the upside others are investing in. But it wasn’t enough. “I’ve met those types of candidates-- sometimes they’re successful, but other times they turn out to be show horses instead of workhorses,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a roll of the dice with Kevin, because you just don’t know enough about him. You don’t know who he really is.”

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