PEWAUKEE — GOP U.S. Senate candidates Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson got into a heated exchange over conservative credentials and respect for military service Thursday in the closing minutes of their first debate.
During an unusual round of post-closing statement rebuttals, Nicholson accused Vukmir of questioning whether his service during two wars in the Marines qualified as conservative credentials. Vukmir, whose son serves in the Army, called the shot a “low blow,” said she respected his service and demanded an apology.
Nicholson didn’t apologize, shooting back, “If it makes you feel better, I feel respected.”
The exchange followed a largely cordial debate hosted by Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin in the GOP stronghold of Waukesha County. While the two agreed on most major issues such as immigration, health care, taxes and President Trump’s approach to trade, Nicholson stressed his outsider status. Meanwhile Vukmir repeatedly referenced her experience in the state Senate, saying she’d bring that same approach to Washington.
During her closing statement, Vukmir, without mentioning Nicholson by name, said, “It’s not enough to just elect any Republican to United State Senate.”
“We can’t take chances on the unknown,” she added. “We have to elect a strong, proven, consistent conservative.”
Nicholson responded that he’s “clearly a different kind of candidate.”
“If you think we can solve our problems by sending the same solutions, you’ve got a couple of choices this election; it’s not me,” he said, referring, though not by name, to Vukmir and Dem U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Vukmir was then allowed to give a one-minute response to Nicholson’s closing statement because he referenced her. But Vukmir said the clock wasn’t working for Nicholson’s closing statement and that she would speak longer, later brushing off the moderator’s call for her to stop speaking.
“I appreciate Kevin’s service to our nation, but he’s going to have to prove what his conservative track record is,” she said. “I don’t have to prove that to you. You know what my track record is.”
She then added, “We know more about Kevin’s track record as a Democrat than we do about his track record as a Republican.” Nicholson was head of the College Democrats of America in 2000, but said he became a Republican after his experience serving in the Marines, raising a family and working in private industry.
Nicholson shot back that people could look to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to see his track record.
“I know that doesn’t mean much to certain politicians; I know that darn well,” he said, drawing some groans from the audience and a protest of “that’s wrong” from Vukmir.
He later added, “those that have said that leading Marines in combat during the course of two wars does not qualify as conservative credentials need to look inside them and decide what they think conservative credentials are.” He also referenced his time in private industry and as a father.
His comments about politicians not thinking much of his military service prompted Vukmir’s demand for an apology.
Brad Bainum, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s spokesman for the 2018 Senate race, accused the two GOP candidates of embracing “hardline positions that would enrich their special interest big donors but inflict real harm on hardworking Wisconsin families.”
“Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson’s escalating personal attacks only add to the fact that they’re running to work for corporate special interests like the out-of-state billionaire Koch brothers and that they’ll do whatever it takes to protect Washington corruption,” he said.