Kevin Nicholson has a confession to make, if only someone would listen. Standing on a makeshift stage inside a burgundy-colored barn rented by the Republican Party of Outagamie County—two hours north of Milwaukee, just west of Green Bay—the U.S. Senate candidate and unlikely new object of conservative fascination has broken into a biographical speech. But many attendees don’t seem to care. He isn’t unique in receiving this treatment; the audience, buzzing off plates of barbecue and $2 cans of Miller Lite, was just as irreverent toward their own congressman, Mike Gallagher, as well as Leah Vukmir, a state senator and Nicholson’s rival in the Republican primary. With the barn’s metal gates flung upward to welcome August’s evening breath, and clusters of party loyalists chattering in buffet lines and around red-plastic-draped picnic tables, the acoustics are dreadful for a rookie politician hoping to be heard.

But then it happens: Nicholson, a decorated combat veteran and business wunderkind with advanced degrees from Harvard and Dartmouth, begins taming the crowd, one expertly crafted anecdote at a time. He recalls his experience fighting and losing friends in Iraq, as Democrats “lied” about the gains his Marines made. He tells of adventures in academia, where he could “test the assumptions of the elites and the experts to find out what they really don’t know.” He mentions his time as a McKinsey consultant, engineering corporate restructurings around the world, as a segue to denouncing the “garbage” math in Washington on the sustainability of America’s debt. The longer he goes, the quieter his audience gets.