DELAFIELD, Wis. – I was having a great conversation about entitlement reform with Wisconsin Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, the affable convert to conservatism vying to unseat Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., next fall. Nicholson told me he didn't see entitlement reform and infrastructure legislation as "mutually exclusive" in 2018, but rather as pieces in a puzzle where "no one piece of it can be looked at independent of the others."
Given his concerns about government spending, entitlement reform is clearly something the 39-year-old Marine veteran thinks about a lot.
On the tail end of an exchange in which Nicholson, a businessman, broadly outlined his approach to reforming Medicare and Social Security, I asked, "Is that something you're hearing a lot about from the Republican voters that you're talking to right now, entitlements?"
Outside his office in southeastern Wisconsin, snow had been falling steadily all afternoon. The temperature hovered in single digits. But Nicholson was feeling the heat from his base.
"There’s a white hot rage," he replied without pause, "from Republican voters over the fact that Obamacare was not repealed."
"There’s an expectation that it will be dealt with," Nicholson insisted.
"I mean it’s not just theoretical," he continued. "They are paying more for their health insurance than they ever have, they’re watching it continue to spike, and then they’re reading stories about how providers are dropping out of the market."
I asked again later in our interview what the former College Democrat president expects will be the major issues of his primary race, and again Nicholson pointed straight to Obamacare repeal, emphatically maintaining, "until that is resolved, that is going to remain absolutely front and center."
With tax reform in the rearview mirror, Republican leadership in Washington seems ready to turn the page in 2018, preparing to focus on new policy priorities like an infrastructure overhaul. President Trump tweeted as recently as Tuesday that "eventually" "Democrats & Republicans" will "come together and develop a great new HealthCare plan!"
"Eventually," but not quite "front and center."
Nicholson's read on the mood of Wisconsin conservatives suggests Republicans in Washington may be underestimating frustration in their base. He was eager to credit Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and President Trump with a victory on tax reform, which Nicholson said voters were "glad" to see passed. He listed entitlements, government spending, and foreign policy as other priorities for Wisconsin Republicans this primary cycle as well.
But running as an outsider with the backing of a super PAC linked to Steve Bannon (with whom the father of three told me he does not "talk regularly"), Nicholson stopped short of blaming Trump for his party's failure to deliver on its central promise of the last decade. "I don't fault the president for that, that was a failing of Congress, that's the reality," he contended, speaking of the GOP's unsuccessful efforts to repeal Obamacare.
How voters apportion the blame between the executive and legislative branches could be another story.
For a candidate like Nicholson, however, simply recognizing the "white hot rage" of exasperated Trump Country conservatives may be more than half the battle.