Former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson joins the Wisconsin Republican primary for governor, compares himself with Donald Trump

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Businessman Kevin Nicholson has joined the Republican field in the Wisconsin governor's race.
Businessman Kevin Nicholson has joined the Republican field in the Wisconsin governor's race.

MADISON – Republican U.S. Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson launched a campaign for governor on Thursday that is as much against Wisconsin Republicans as it is about unseating Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers.

Nicholson, a former candidate for U.S. Senate, spent an hour with two conservative radio talk show hosts condemning the state's Republican "machine" and accusing his GOP primary opponent former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch of being a "broken record" who would continue a Democratic string of victories in statewide races.

The 44-year-old Delafield business consultant compared himself to former President Donald Trump in making his announcement, noting the state party he's at odds with in Wisconsin wouldn't support the former president in his first run either — instead throwing support behind U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz who ultimately won Wisconsin's 2016 GOP presidential primary.

"We're all in a different spot right now. We understand that the Emperor has got no clothes and the people that are running society are not good at it," Nicholson said about Republicans leading the party, like Kleefisch and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

"And so me being nice about that or just pretending and going along and getting along, that's what's gonna lose the faith of those people that we need to get out to vote."

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On the same day as Nicholson's announcement, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson pushed back against his assessment of the party, and said whichever candidate isn't endorsed by the state GOP should leave the race — an idea Nicholson has rejected.

"What I would encourage candidates to do is try and win that endorsement of the party. And then recognize if you can't do that your chances of winning the primary are quite slim. And a divisive primary is going to reduce our chance of winning the governorship which is quite important in this state," Johnson told reporters in Waukesha County Thursday afternoon.

"What I see as I travel around the state and talk to the party faithful they don't seem very establishment to me," Johnson said. "They seem more like a bunch of rabble rousers like myself. So I don't view the Republican Party as the establishment."

Nicholson's strategy will all but assure a costly Republican primary contest, with billionaire GOP mega donor Richard Uihlein of Illinois promising to spend heavily on behalf of Nicholson.

And it threatens to alienate party leaders who would be tasked with helping elect him in a general election and the Republican legislative leaders Nicholson would have to work with to accomplish his goals.

"I know he may be very angry that he can't run for United States Senate. But the rest of us are angry too. It's just that our anger is focused on Tony Evers failed leadership," Kleefisch told reporters in La Crosse in response to Nicholson's comments, according to WDJT-TV (Channel 58).

Nicholson wants all school curriculum posted online

Nicholson said in the pair of radio interviews on WTAQ and WISN that he wants to enact policy changes that would require schools to post all curriculum materials online in an effort to root out lessons that teach children about systemic racism. He also said he would seek legal action against schools that violate civil rights laws, and would aggressively pursue trade policies to benefit Wisconsin industries.

His campaign did not register with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission before Nicholson's announcement, or before launching his campaign website that includes donation links.

State law requires candidates to file a registration statement as soon as practicable "when they either file nomination papers, receive a contribution, make a disbursement, or give consent to another to receive contributions and make disbursements," according to the state Ethics Commission.

Nicholson said in a statement on his website that he was running for governor "to use my leadership skills and business experience to build a better future for the children, families, and businesses of our state."

"I joined the Marine Corps in the middle of two wars because I believe America is worth fighting for. And now, I’m fighting for Wisconsin’s future. I was born in Wisconsin, and I’m proud to raise my family here," he said in a statement on his campaign website. "I hope you’ll join us as we build a better future."

Sam Roecker, a spokesman for Evers, said Nicholson is as divisive as Kleefisch.

"Wisconsinites don’t need another divisive politician like Kevin Nicholson or Rebecca Kleefisch — we need to focus on improving the quality of our schools, helping our small businesses succeed, and growing our economy," Roecker said.

"Governor Evers is doing the right thing to keep Wisconsin moving forward, whoever wins the Republican primary will do everything they can to divide us and undo his progress."

A spokesman for Kleefisch did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More: Robin Vos to Kevin Nicholson: 'You need to not run for governor.' Assembly speaker's comments spark intraparty spat in GOP

More: Tommy Thompson isn't ruling out campaign for Wisconsin governor after stint at UW

Nicholson looks for outsider status in Republican Party

Nicholson, who lost a primary for U.S. Senate four years ago, is seeking to establish himself as an outsider to state Republican politics, announcing his campaign days after dressing down the chairman of the state Republican Party at a county party event and often criticizing the "political class" in the state — a veiled reference to Kleefisch and established party leaders like Vos.

"Our political class has allowed law and order — and society — to slip away. Sure, the Left has championed the policies that led to this destruction, but the establishment Republican political class has proven incapable of stopping them," Nicholson tweeted Monday.

And Nicholson enters the race despite pushback from Vos, whom Nicholson criticized by name more than Evers or Kleefisch on Thursday.

Vos, R-Rochester, has publicly urged him not to run, saying a GOP primary could hurt Republicans' chances of taking the governor's office from Evers.

"That's like taking political advice from Scooby-Doo except Scooby-Doo actually gets the guy in the end," Nicholson said Thursday about the comment.

Nicholson joined the governor's race after waiting for months to see whether Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson would seek a third term.

When Johnson announced earlier this month he would run again in 2022, Nicholson decided to run for governor instead of launching a second campaign for U.S. Senate.

His announcement shifts the governor's race into a new phase. The winner of the Aug. 9 GOP primary will take on first-term Evers in the Nov. 8 general election.

Kleefisch, who served for eight years alongside Gov. Scott Walker, launched her campaign for governor in September and raised $3.3 million over four months. Evers raised $10 million in the last six months of 2021 and has $10.5 million on hand.

Uihlein released a statement this week suggesting he would spend as much as necessary to elect Nicholson if he chooses to run for governor.

Uihlein, CEO of Pleasant Prairie-based supply giant Uline, backed Nicholson in 2018 during his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate against former Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir. In all, Uihlein spent about $11 million on Nicholson's campaign.

Meanwhile, Liz Uihlein, Richard Uihlein's wife, has spent $220,000 on behalf of Kleefisch.

Nicholson is running as a Republican decades after leading the College Democrats of America as a student at the University of Minnesota, a tie Kleefisch is surely going to highlight in the primary race. He worked for the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota through 2002, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Also in the GOP primary race is political newcomer Jonathan Wichmann, who has questioned the need for COVID-19 vaccines and touted an endorsement of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to then-President Trump.

Madison businessman Eric Hovde is also considering a run. Hovde, who lost a 2012 Senate primary, recently said his decision would not be influenced by whatever Nicholson decided to do.

Bill Glauber and Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com and follower her on Twitter at @mollybeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kevin Nicholson joins Wisconsin Republican primary for governor

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