MADISON, WIS. - Leah Vukmir is used to being the underdog.
Few gave the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Wisconsin much of a chance of defeating her better-funded primary challenger last month, but she prevailed thanks largely to support from the party establishment.
Now Vukmir faces another opponent with deeper pockets - Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin - in one of the most expensive Senate races in the country. The contest could determine control of the Senate and will be closely watched as an indicator of whether Wisconsin might return to its traditional status as a Democratic state during the 2020 presidential election.
Vukmir is taking a big risk by tying herself to President Donald Trump, who won Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes in 2016, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who faces a tough re-election contest in November.
“I don't think any of that intimidates her,” said former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, Vukmir's mentor when she was first elected to the Assembly in 2002. “She is the underdog, but she likes that position.”
Vukmir, 60, is the daughter of Greek immigrants, a lifelong resident of the Milwaukee area and a registered nurse. Until the Senate campaign, she worked as a nursing instructor.
Vukmir is pitching herself as the “clear conservative.” She's known as tough and uncompromising, a trait seen early in this year's campaign when she confronted Baldwin with a question about why the senator didn't support tax cuts. Vukmir's primary campaign included an edgy TV ad playing up death threats she got as a state senator - while showing Vukmir sitting at a table with a holstered gun at hand.
Vukmir first made a splash locally when, as a mom with no political experience, she complained that her suburban Milwaukee public school wasn't teaching her daughter how to read. She eventually formed a group called Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, and became a familiar face at the Legislature.
Jensen recalled meeting Vukmir in the 1990s as she lobbied him as Assembly speaker to remove a testing requirement proposed by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican. Jensen described Vukmir as politically naive. He said he told her that she would have to convince a majority of Republican lawmakers for him to back killing the proposal.
“It didn't take her but a week” to do just that, Jensen said. “She did it all on her own.”
When Walker left the Legislature in 2002 to become Milwaukee County executive, Vukmir ran to replace him and won. Eight years later, she was the underdog again when she challenged a Democratic incumbent for the state Senate - and won again. The victory helped flip the chamber to Republicans, paving the way for Walker, who was elected governor that year, to pass his conservative overhaul of Wisconsin.
“She's not afraid to take on a challenge, even when the experts tell her not to,” said Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist who first met Vukmir about 20 years ago when he was a member of Thompson's administration. “I think it fuels her.”
But taking on Baldwin is Vukmir's biggest fight yet.
Democrats have already captured several races in Wisconsin this year that were seen as barometers of the electorate, and the party is confident that enthusiasm will help carry Baldwin.
Still, Baldwin is one of the more liberal members of the Senate and has long been a target of conservative outside groups and GOP billionaire megadonors . They see a chance to deny her re-election in a purple state that Trump barely won in 2016.
Trump didn't endorse in the primary, but came out full throttle for Vukmir the day after her win. Vice President Mike Pence came to Wisconsin to raise money for her two weeks later.
On the issues, Vukmir and Baldwin could barely be more different.
Vukmir would build a border wall, pursue federal changes to unions similar to what she voted for in Wisconsin, and “drain the swamp” by relocating federal offices and workers to the states. She has consistently supported Walker's agenda, including voting to effectively end collective bargaining for most public workers and enacting the state's 20-week abortion ban.
Baldwin is trying to make the race largely about health care. Baldwin is a staunch supporter of the federal health care law, and supports Sen. Bernie Sanders' “Medicare-for-all” single-payer health care proposal.
Vukmir opposes the national health care law. She supports a market-driven approach and largely returning to what was in place before the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. Pence said during his Wisconsin visit that Vukmir could be the deciding vote in striking down the law.
Health care was named the top issue of the Senate race in a poll last month by Suffolk University done for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That poll showed Baldwin at 50 percent and Vukmir at 42 percent. Another poll by Marquette University Law School conducted the week after the primary showed the race to be a dead heat.
Baldwin has been focusing on issues that typically generate bipartisan support, such as her “Buy America” proposal and fighting the opioid crisis. She has also dinged Vukmir for being a leader with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that offers conservative-minded legislation to legislatures across the country.
Baldwin and her supporters argue that Vukmir is emphasizing her work as a nurse and her early activism as a concerned mom to cover up her conservatism.
“Leah Vukmir cannot hide the fact that she's spent her past 16 years in Wisconsin's state Legislature working for corporate special interests to enrich them at the expense of hardworking Wisconsinites,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Brad Bainum.