Kevin Nicholson drops out of Republican race for Wisconsin governor

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Kevin Nicholson former Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin.
Kevin Nicholson former Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin.

Delafield business consultant Kevin Nicholson announced Tuesday that he's suspending his campaign in the Republican Party primary for governor.

In a statement, Nicholson said he didn't want to go negative as a way to catch up in the contest against the two front-runners, Hartland business executive Tim Michels and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

He added that he does not plan to make any endorsements in the primary.

"Over the past week, I have assessed the state of the primary race, and it has become clear to me and my team the only path forward for our campaign is attacking the other candidates in the race on the airwaves and running a very negative campaign," Nicholson said in a statement.

"While our team has the capability to do that, that is not something I want to do — nor do I believe it would be good for the party to do so."

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Nicholson, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2018 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, said he will "work to get Republicans up and down the ballot elected. Our fight is not over, and I will continue to be engaged on the battlefield to elect conservative outsiders in the state of Wisconsin."

Mark Belling of WISN (AM-1130) was the first to report Nicholson's withdrawal.

In the most recent Marquette University Law School Poll, Michels (27%) and Kleefisch (26%) were in a virtual dead heat, while Nicholson trailed with only 10%. State Rep. Tim Ramthun was at 3%.

During the campaign, Nicholson ran as a political outsider. He repeatedly went after Republican Party leaders and insiders, whom he tagged as the Madison Machine. He fought for the party not to endorse any candidate at its convention.

A super PAC funded largely by billionaire Uline founder Dick Uihlein helped Nicholson by spending heavily in the race. But it was not enough to move him to the top of the pack.

More: Top legislative Republicans face primary challengers rising from grievances over the 2020 election

More: In Wisconsin's high-profile primaries, Republicans are taking off the gloves while Democrats play it safe

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nicholson reflected on the decision that he said he reached with his wife, Jessie, over the Fourth of July weekend.

Not only was Nicholson facing the prospect of having to go negative to climb back in the race, but he also was up against the large spending by Michels.

Nicholson said he and Michels have similar messages.

"It's very hard to fight through that," Nicholson said. "I think my wife and I are very pragmatic. Our goal is not to burn people down. My goal is not to damage people or movements.

"We have to take a clear, sober-eyed view of things," he added. "And we did. That seems to be the best solution at this point."

Asked if his exit from the race meant that the so-called Madison Machine had triumphed, Nicholson said, "Yeah. Well, that remains to be seen."

He said he asked voters if they were serious about wanting to do things differently, and if they were, "then I was their candidate."

"At the end of the day I believe we were that candidate outside the system, outside the machine," he added.

Nicholson said he had no regrets about the campaign he waged.

"I certainly don't regret anything about (focusing on) the mistakes that led us to this point as a society, where our state and country are so fractured and we face so many severe problems,"  he said.

Asked if he would run for U.S. Senate in 2024 when Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin will face reelection, Nicholson said, "No idea."

He said he would do his "best" to help the eventual nominee in the general election against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

"Let the voters decide who is the nominee first," he said.

In a statement, Michels said he respected Nicholson for his military service as a U.S. Marine and his work with the nonprofit No Better Friend Corp.

"This race was better for him being in it, working as hard as he did, and pushing his outsider message about the need to shake up the Madison machine," Michels said. "I will work hard to earn the support of his supporters, as I continue to grow our coalition. It is imperative we defeat Tony Evers this fall and that's our continued focus."

With Nicholson's exit, state Democrats wasted little time in criticizing the rest of the GOP field.

“Kevin Nicholson leaving the race only means that there is one less radical Republican in the gubernatorial primary," said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Rapid Response Director Hannah Menchhoff. "Nicholson exposed deep divisions among Wisconsin Republicans who only want to move further to the right. Both Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Michels are extremist insiders who are more worried about pandering to the ultra-MAGA base instead of doing what’s right for Wisconsinites."

In a statement, Kleefisch said: “I’d like to thank Kevin Nicholson for the hearty debate and competition to make our state and conservative movement better. Moving forward, I humbly ask Nicholson’s supporters to join our team. I’ve taken on the Madison swamp before and won, and this fall, I will beat Tony Evers.”

Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice contributed to this article.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kevin Nicholson drops out of Republican race for Wisconsin governor