MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus injected himself Monday in the Republican primary for Wisconsin's Senate seat, casting doubt on Kevin Nicholson's conversion to the GOP after previously serving as national president of the College Democrats.
"I just find this all too convenient, all too contrived and I just don't buy it," Priebus said in an interview on WISN-AM in Milwaukee.
Priebus, who led the state party in Wisconsin before serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee, instead endorsed state Sen. Leah Vukmir in the GOP Senate primary. Vukmir has strong backing among Wisconsin Republicans, while Nicholson's supporters include the national Club for Growth and Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist who worked alongside Priebus under President Donald Trump last year before they both departed.
The winner of the Aug. 14 Republican Senate primary will advance to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November.
Nicholson responded to Priebus endorsing Vukmir by likening his candidacy to others with little to no political experience when they first ran for office, including Trump and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
"I know it rocks the boat a bit when someone from outside the comfortable, established political universe stands up wants to serve," Nicholson said on WTMJ-AM. "I don't remember Reince Priebus or others launching similar criticisms at Donald Trump when he stood up to serve. ... It obviously has a lot of people on the inside nervous, and that's OK because I look forward to working with them all in the general election to beat Tammy Baldwin."
Priebus worked with Vukmir during his time as state party chairman, a post he held from 2007 until 2011 when he became head of the RNC. Priebus said Vukmir, a state lawmaker since 2002, has a long conservative record supporting Walker's agenda, gun rights and other issues.
"This is not some moderate Republican we're talking about," Priebus said of Vukmir. "We're talking about a Republican who is constantly pushing a conservative agenda."
Priebus contrasted his own experience working up through the ranks of the Wisconsin Republican Party with Nicholson, who was national president of the College Democrats in 2000 and said he converted to being a Republican by 2008 after serving in the Marines and working in the private sector.
"You may say `I had a conversion,' OK great," Priebus said. "Welcome to the Republican Party, I have no problem with that."
Priebus said Nicholson should have some "in between time" from being the College Democrats national president to the U.S. Senate. Priebus suggested he first raise money for House Speaker Paul Ryan or other Republicans or volunteers for Johnson to "show us this conversion is actually real."
Despite his harsh words for Nicholson, Priebus said he believed Republicans need to come together behind whoever wins the primary because "2018 is going to be a tough year."