Wisconsin Republican Senate candidates won't criticize Pres. Trump

MILWAUKEE — Republican U.S. Senate candidates in Wisconsin stood by President Donald Trump during a Thursday debate, refusing to name anything he's done that they oppose.

President Trump has not endorsed in the race, but both Kevin Nicholson, a management consultant, and state Sen. Leah Vukmir have tried to embrace him as polls show a strong majority of Republicans in Wisconsin back the president.

The winner of the Aug. 14 primary will advance to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November. Baldwin is a staunch President Trump critic.

"I look at the president's agenda and I said it's a darn good one and everyone knows it," Nicholson said during the debate that comes less than three weeks before the primary. "The president's done good work and he should be applauded for it."

He specifically praised President Trump's economic agenda, pulling back on the Iran deal, negotiating with North Korea and his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was keeping an open line of communication.

Vukmir called President Trump a "strong leader" whose policies are "exploding the economy."

"A liberal elite media want nothing more than to bring this president down," Vukmir said. "I want to see President Donald Trump succeed. When President Donald Trump succeeds, America succeeds."

Vukmir, a 15-year veteran of the Legislature, pitched herself as the proven conservative who can work closely with President Trump.

Vukmir and Nicholson also declined to criticize President Trump's trade and tariff policy that farmers and businesses have said are hurting them, and that Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has loudly denounced as moving toward a Soviet-style economy.

"At this point, I believe we need to give the president the time to negotiate," Vukmir said. "That's what he's known for."

Nicholson said he did not think President Trump's trade policy was having negative effects on Wisconsin businesses, even as Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson has made adjustments to its business because of President Trump's tariffs.

"Our producers have found ways to be successful as best they can," Nicholson said.

Baldwin, as well as Johnson, has written to President Trump urging him to reconsider his tariff policies because of the harm they're causing Wisconsin businesses and farmers.

The Marquette University Law School poll last week showed the Republican Senate primary to be about even, with about a third of likely Republican primary voters undecided.

Nicholson, 40, is a former Democrat from Delafield who said his experience serving in the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, together with working as a management consultant in the private sector, helped to convince him to switch and become a Republican.

Vukmir won the Wisconsin Republican Party endorsement at its state convention in May and since then has been endorsed by a host of high-profile state office holders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Vukmir, 60, has closely aligned herself with Gov. Scott Walker, who has officially stayed out of the race even though his son works for Vukmir and his wife held a fundraiser for her.

Both Vukmir and Nicholson largely agreed on the biggest issues. Both Nicholson and Vukmir oppose abortion, have pledged not to raise taxes, want to repeal the federal health care law passed under former President Obama and support President Trump's building of a border wall with Mexico.

Nicholson has outraised Vukmir in the race through the end of June, but outside groups favoring Nicholson have dominated the airwaves.

Vukmir and Nicholson debated alone for an hour, then three fringe Republican candidates — Charles Barman, Griffin Jones and George Lucia — participated for another 30 minutes. None of them are campaigning or raising money anywhere close to the level of Vukmir and Nicholson and they were not invited to the Wisconsin Republican Party convention for the endorsement vote.

Barman, unlike the other male candidates who wore suits and ties, was dressed in blue jeans, boots, a sleeveless black T-shirt and a cowboy hat which contrasted sharply with his bright white hair and foot-long beard.