In an open letter published at RightWisconsin on Monday, the Club for Growth President David McIntosh defended the organization’s decision to endorse Kevin Nicholson (R-Delafield) for U.S. Senate by attacking the record his primary election opponent state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield).

That record, according to the Club for Growth, includes voting in 2011 and 2015 for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s budgets.

“Throughout her 15 years in state office, Vukmir voted for at least 58 higher taxes and fees, including her first budget as a state senator in 2011, which included a net tax and fee increase of $87 million (Act 32, 2011),” McIntosh wrote. “In 2015, Vukmir again voted for the budget, which contained six separate tax increases and 13 major fee increases (Act 55, 2015).”

“If Kevin Nicholson has told Club For Growth that he opposed Scott Walker’s state budgets, this is indeed newsworthy,” said GOP strategist Brian Fraley, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race.

Nicholson’s campaign refused to comment on whether their candidate agreed with Club for Growth’s criticism of Vukmir’s votes for the 2011 and 2015 budget bills. When Nicholson was asked directly in an email if he has any position on those two budget bills, Nicholson campaign spokesman Brandon Moody was firm in the campaign not issuing a comment.

“I’m telling you that it’s not our policy to comment on op-eds we didn’t write or research,” Moody wrote in an email. “Club wrote it, so you need to chat with them on it.”

Wisconsin voters might remember the 2011 budget as the first of Walker’s budgets, which (with the passage of Act 10) gained national attention for sparking protests and the occupation of the state capitol.

Vukmir’s campaign responded with a statement defending the senator’s vote.

“The national Club for Growth’s resentment for Governor Walker must fester years after they trashed him in the 2010 Republican primary,” Vukmir spokesman Mattias Gugel wrote in response. “Even now, they’re bashing the Wisconsin conservative movement, Governor Walker, and Leah Vukmir, who have all proven to taxpayers that they have spines of steel by standing up to the unions in the face of death threats and bringing thousands of jobs to our state.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, defended Vukmir and Walker in a statement Wednesday from Club for Growth’s criticisms:

“Senator Leah Vukmir is one of the most conservative state legislators in the nation and is hero to taxpayers. Senator Vukmir and Gov. Scott Walker have cut taxes by $8 billion since the beginning of 2011. On top of that, they’ve saved Badger State taxpayers $5 billion through the landmark Act 10 entitlement reform enacted six years ago over the protests of violent union goons. They’ve also enacted Right to Work, which frees workers from being forced to join a union as a condition of employment, and repealed prevailing laws that increase the taxpayer cost of public projects. Those are just a few of their highlights. Some consultant who obviously knows nothing about Wisconsin politics has mislead the Club for Growth with cherry picked data. These same bogus and false attacks could also be levied at Gov. Walker. The good news is, Wisconsin voters are smart enough to see these attacks against Vukmir and Walker for what they are: lies.”

Vukmir’s spokesman questioned whether a Nicholson supporter’s contribution to Club for Growth affected their endorsement decision.

“David McIntosh was resolute in the 2016 presidential primary that ‘we’re not going to be bought,'” Gugel wrote. “Yet after this unjustifiable column, it appears that $1.5 million from Dick Uihlein plus the gnawing bitterness from losing to Governor Walker in 2010 might be the magic formula for the Club for Growth.”

Uihlein has given $3.5 million to a super PAC, “Solutions for Wisconsin,” to support Nicholson’s campaign. A super PAC may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support candidates for federal office but must operate independently of the candidate and campaign they are endorsing. “Solutions for Wisconsin” has already begun running ads on the radio to support Nicholson.

In a phone interview, McIntosh denied that contributions from Uihlein played a role in Club for Growth’s endorsement of Nicholson.

“We don’t take contributions and donors into account,” McIntosh said. “It’s all based on Nicholson’s record, his strong interview, and frankly, in his case that he would be the outsider, which is something that we feel is needed here in Washington now given all of the problems Congress has in passing President Trump’s economic agenda.”

However, McIntosh said Nicholson was not asked about whether he supported Walker’s budgets, despite those budget votes being held against Vukmir.

“We typically don’t ask hypotheticals about something they didn’t vote on,” McIntosh said. “We ask what did you vote on, which we would have loved to have done if Leah had been willing to come and interview with us.”

When comparing candidates with no voting records, like Nicholson, with candidates like Vukmir that have actually served in office, McIntosh denied that there was a bias towards political newcomers. “We’re trying to ascertain in each case is the candidate a true committed economic conservative,” McIntosh said. “Are they a conservative sometimes when it’s politically convenient but not other times? And we look at a lot of different things to make that judgement.”

Vukmir’s campaign spokesman pointed to McIntosh’s statement in the op-ed, “A prior record is the best predictor of how a candidate will act in higher office.”

“Leah has years of votes on record to prove she is a conservative, whereas the Club for Growth-endorsed candidate’s only record is as president of the College Democrats,” Gugel said. “Wisconsin conservatives know Leah, who has stood with them 100 percent of the time, is far superior to someone who hasn’t yet.”

McIntosh was asked if he considered a vote for the 2011 budget bill to be “politically convenient” despite all of the protests. McIntosh said Walker did a great service to the country in pushing through Act 10, which ended collective bargaining over benefits for most public employees. “I think we stand on record that the governor and Leah would have been better off if they had not included tax increases along with those,” McIntosh said.

However, McIntosh denied that the op-ed could be seen as a criticism of Walker or any Republican who voted for those budgets. “We’re only talking about Leah’s record, and the record is what it is, and she voted for the tax increases,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh defended the criticism of Vukmir in the op-ed by saying she should have tried harder to amend the budget bills to eliminate any tax increases. “She’s claiming to have been a leader and an architect of that bill, unlike a lot of other members of the legislature,” McIntosh said. “So for her now, what is it? Is she a leader? Did she put it together? Or was she just a passive back-bencher who voted yes when the governor said vote yes.”

McIntosh pointed to a “white paper” on the Club for Growth website, which McIntosh said was critical of Walker’s budgets. However, the “white paper” actually praised Walker for his budgets as governor.

“Walker has been remarkably better on taxes since becoming governor,” the Club for Growth report said. “In 2010, he ran on a platform calling for, among other things, a phase out of the retirement income tax, and for the elimination of Wisconsin’s corporate income tax. While Walker has not yet achieved those goals, he has made notable changes to Wisconsin’s tax code.”

While the op-ed criticized Vukmir for voting for the budget bill in 2015, the Club for Growth report said Walker, “Signed a two-year state budget in 2015 that does not raise taxes.”

And while the report on Walker says that the 2011 budget bill “included a net fee increase of $111 million,” the report also says, “As Governor, Walker’s first budget (2011) eliminated the state’s deficit without raising taxes, in part thanks to $800 million in education funding cuts.”

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