In Wisconsin, It’s Bannon vs. Conservative Talk Radio

President Trump’s former top strategist has waded into the Badger State’s GOP Senate primary, and some prominent hosts don’t like it.

Steve Bannon, former strategist for President Trump, speaks at a campaign rally for Senate candidate Kelli Ward in Scottsdale, Ariz. on Oct. 17.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin,File
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Oct. 29, 2017, 8 p.m.

Steve Bannon has drawn plenty of ire around the country as he wages his “war” on the GOP establishment. In Wisconsin, the president’s former chief strategist—and by extension, his preferred candidate in the 2018 Senate race—has struck a nerve with a uniquely influential group: conservative talk-radio hosts.

One host, Mark Belling, has accused Bannon-backed Kevin Nicholson—one of two major Republican challengers to Sen. Tammy Baldwin—of “polishing Steve Bannon’s shoes with his tongue.” Another, Jeff Wagner, predicted that the firebrand’s endorsement would be “a recipe for electoral disaster.” A third, Jerry Bader, called Bannon “toxic” and “bad for the conservative movement.”

There’s perhaps no other state where conservative talk radio has played as outsized of a role in Republican politics as it has in Wisconsin. Popular hosts, particularly those in the vote-rich southeastern part of the state, have helped lift candidates like Scott Walker, now running for a third term as governor, to prominence, and helped sink candidates like Donald Trump in the state’s last presidential primary.

Now their attention is on the burgeoning Senate race, which will be one of the most hotly contested of next year’s midterms. Many hosts in the state were already partial to state Sen. Leah Vukmir, a strong Walker ally who has been a regular on their programs during her 15 years in the legislature. By contrast, Nicholson, a businessman and former Marine who’s never run for office and was previously a Democrat, entered the contest as completely unknown to them. And a seal of approval from Bannon only adds to their uncertainty about him.

“I can’t imagine this is going to be a net plus for him,” Charlie Sykes, once the leading voice in Wisconsin conservative talk radio, said of Bannon’s endorsement of Nicholson. Vukmir has “a very, very strong base in talk radio. … She’s certainly got the home-court advantage.”

Belling, who hosts an afternoon show on WISN in Milwaukee, has been the most critical of Bannon’s involvement. After he interviewed Vukmir on his program Tuesday, Belling questioned the “bowing and scraping” Nicholson did to win Bannon’s endorsement. Belling said in an interview that Nicholson emailed him right after that day’s show “to touch base.”

“If Nicholson runs as Bannon’s boy, he’s not going to win in Wisconsin. He just isn’t,” Belling said. “I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s just making it real hard to do so right now.”

Asked to respond to the talk radio hosts’ comments on the Bannon endorsement, Nicholson campaign spokesman Michael Antonopoulos said in an email: “Kevin’s mission to bring an outsider’s perspective to the U.S. Senate and demand conservative solutions unites Republicans. His support continues to grow because Kevin’s background as a Marine combat veteran and conservative businessman appeals to conservatives across the state.”

Belling said he doesn’t plan on making an official endorsement in the race, and hopes to have both candidates continue to appear on his show in the coming months. But he’s been effusive in his praise of Vukmir, saying she is “maybe the best Republican member of the entire state legislature.”

Others are ready to pick sides. Bader, of WTAQ in Green Bay, says he’s only waiting to see if Eric Hovde, a Madison investor who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2012, jumps into the race. If he doesn’t, Bader said in an interview, there’s “virtually zero doubt” he’ll endorse Vukmir. “I have no intentions of supporting the Bannon candidate in this race,” he recently said on his show.

Whether other hosts choose to go the route of Belling or Bader, they are at the very least prepared to defend Vukmir from what they see as unfair attacks. Several of them pushed back against a recent article from Breitbart News, where Bannon serves as executive chairman, that lambasted Vukmir for being backed by the “Washington establishment” and for refusing to say if she would support Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader (Nicholson reportedly said he would not). Vicki McKenna, whose radio program broadcasts in Milwaukee and Madison, dismissed the story as a “political hit piece” and brought Vukmir on to rebut it.

For these radio hosts, the term “establishment” doesn’t ring true for Vukmir, despite her relatively long tenure as an elected official. Unlike at the national level, Republican leadership and the grassroots have largely been aligned in Wisconsin. Over the past seven years of statehouse control, they’ve worked together to pass a laundry list of conservative policies, ranging from right-to-work to voter ID to abortion restrictions.

“I think Leah Vukmir—and again, I’m not endorsing anybody—I think she’s a strong conservative candidate, and if people try to come in and say that she’s something other than that, there’s going to be a backlash,” said Wagner, who hosts a morning show on WTMJ in Milwaukee. “Because we know her.”

Trump experienced this dynamic during the 2016 presidential primary when his “drain the swamp” message didn’t resonate in Wisconsin like it did in other states. But he still went on to win the state narrowly in the general election, so there’s certainly upside for Nicholson nabbing Bannon’s endorsement as well. Indeed, Vukmir also spoke with Bannon before he took sides in the race.

Of course, not all listeners will share every opinion of the hosts they tune in to. And while talk radio is an important way to reach conservative voters, it’s only one part of the equation. With the backing of major GOP donor Richard Uihlein and outside groups such as Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, Nicholson will have little trouble getting his message out.

“I doubt someone who hates Bannon is going to completely exclude Kevin from consideration from the rest of the whole primary just because of one endorsement,” said Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based director of the conservative group American Majority. “There’s going to be 20 more people that they like more than Bannon that endorsed Kevin.”

More than anything, radio hosts in the state are concerned that Bannon’s involvement will only escalate what was already shaping up to be an expensive and divisive primary, much like the one during Baldwin’s first run for Senate in 2012. A tight four-way contest left the eventual GOP nominee, Tommy Thompson, badly bruised heading into the general election against a well-funded and unscathed Democratic opponent.

“Whatever happens here,” Wagner said, “I hope it’s not a repeat of 2012.”

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