MADISON, Wis. — A defiant Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Wisconsin who is a former Marine refused to apologize Thursday amid a growing bipartisan backlash over comments he made about the military, including his questioning the “cognitive thought process” of veterans who are Democrats.

Nine Republican veterans called on Kevin Nicholson to apologize for comments he made related to his military service during a debate last week with his primary challenger, Leah Vukmir, saying they were disappointed with his behavior in the race.

The letter from the veterans, all of whom support Vukmir, came a day after Nicholson, in a radio interview, questioned the “cognitive thought process” of Democratic military veterans. Nicholson also said the Democratic Party had “wholesale rejected the Constitution and the values that it was founded upon.”

Nicholson, whose campaign slogan is “Send in the Marine,” refused to back down or apologize, telling supporters in an email Thursday that “liberals can try to twist this all they want, but I stand by what I said: The Democrat Party has LONG lied to vets.”

Nicholson, 40, said that while he respects Democratic veterans, he doesn’t understand how they can vote for Democratic politicians “who routinely demean and belittle” the Constitution.

“I’ll never apologize for saying that, ever,” Nicholson said.

The winner of the Republican primary will face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November.

Nicholson has largely centered his candidacy on his military background, saying his experiences on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan led to his conversion from Democrat to Republican and made him qualified to serve in the Senate.

The remarks disparaging Democratic veterans generated criticism from a wide array of veterans, including Democrats Tom Palzewicz and Beau Liegeois. They are running for Congress in Wisconsin against Republican incumbents Jim Sensenbrenner and Mike Gallagher, who is also a veteran. Gallagher did not return a message seeking comment.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said he’s going to leave it up to the voters to decide what to make of Nicholson’s comments.

“I value all of our veterans, they are the finest among us,” Johnson told The Associated Press. As to whether he agreed with Nicholson or thought he should apologize, Johnson said, “I’ll let the voters make their own judgment.”

Nicholson faces Vukmir in the Aug. 14 primary. Vukmir, whose son is in the Army, has not commented on Nicholson’s statement about Democratic veterans. The two candidates did spar in a debate last week over Nicholson’s record, after Nicholson said his military service “doesn’t mean much to certain politicians.” Vukmir demanded he apologize for inferring she didn’t respect his service in the Marines.

“If it makes you feel better,” Nicholson said, “I feel respected.”

The Vukmir-supporting veterans, including state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said in the letter Thursday that Nicholson can’t shield himself from questions about formerly being a Democrat by citing his military service.

“It is beneath you to claim that legitimate comments about your statements in the public record are inadmissible because of your service,” they wrote. “It flies in the face of decades of established political discourse.”

They said not even Democratic Sen. John Kerry, of Massachusetts, “used his military experience as an excuse for far-left positions on abortion, taxes, and immigration.”

The veterans said Nicholson’s statements were disrespectful to veterans who support Vukmir and he should apologize. Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody said he would not apologize.

“What would we apologize for ― not being a career politician?” Moody said. “We’ve simply called out Leah Vukmir for running a campaign focused almost exclusively on questioning Kevin’s personal character and values, which includes his service in the Marines.”

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