In Wisconsin’s Senate race, it all comes down to former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R).
With the divisive gubernatorial recall concluded, Badger State political insiders are only now pivoting their attention to the race for the open Senate seat. Observers on the ground are expecting a competitive Republican primary and a hard-fought general election. But they tend to agree that Thompson’s political fortunes could affect the outcome of both contests.
A Democratic strategist said Thompson is the candidate to beat. “All of them are going to be going after Tommy at some point,” this individual said.
Thompson’s advantages are clear.
He served 14 years as Wisconsin’s governor and then as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush. He has high name recognition and polls have consistently shown him with a high approval rating. Surveys have also shown him easily defeating the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
But Thompson served as governor in a different era. His record has been criticized by his detractors as too moderate to win a Republican primary.
The Wisconsin GOP convention in May was perhaps the most troubling sign for Thompson. Despite his long history of service and his frontrunner status, state party delegates voted him third out of four candidates in a contest to determine whom the party would endorse in the Senate primary.
“Tommy Thompson repositioning himself is odd and kind of a late conversion,” said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and former state legislator. “Tommy Thompson epitomizes the old wing of the Republican Party — using the government to accomplish conservative goals.”
Thompson’s GOP opponents — and the conservative activists in Washington, D.C., who also oppose him — are hoping to highlight his establishment ties to boost their candidacies.
Observers say that much of their challenge will be to differentiate themselves from each other as well as from Thompson — and to brand themselves as the most viable conservative alternative to the former governor without splitting the vote.
Former Rep. Mark Neumann in particular has touted himself as the conservative alternative. He has received support from activists and Members affiliated with the tea party, including Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.). He also has the support of conservative groups such as the Club for Growth.
Thompson, however, remains confident. “I’ve been and will continue to work hard, crisscrossing the state, and it’s paid early dividends with a clear advantage over the Republican field,” Thompson said Monday in an interview with Roll Call. “Yet, I take nothing for granted as this is mine to lose and mine to win.”
While the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker (R) consumed the available political oxygen, the Senate contest languished. Few paid attention to the upcoming Aug. 14 GOP primary, let alone the Nov. 6 general election.
With the recall completed, however, Badger State political insiders are beginning to focus on the Senate race.
Baldwin is running unopposed for her party’s nomination. She hopes to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl in a state that, until 2010, tended to lean Democratic in statewide races. Her success could depend on who wins the GOP primary.
“I think there’s plenty who haven’t even thought about [the Senate race] and aren’t aligned,” an unaffiliated Wisconsin GOP strategist said of the upcoming primary. “Everybody is getting a fresh start out of this recall.”
While Neumann has the highest profile among the non-Thompson Republican primary candidates, GOP strategists in the state warn that the race is competitive and that it is too early to predict how it might end up.
At least one GOP Senate candidate, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, has been inspired by Walker and is wrapping himself in the governor’s elevated reputation. Fitzgerald is telling voters that electing him to the Senate would be akin to sending a close ally of the governor to Washington, D.C.
Fitzgerald, who surprised many by finishing first at the state convention in the endorsement vote, describes himself as the “dark horse” of the race. His service as a legislative leader has allowed him to forge tight relationships in Madison, including with Walker. Fitzgerald said he has been one of the governor’s biggest supporters and that he expects to capitalize on Walker’s success in the June 5 recall.
“It’s especially great for me because I’m connected at the hip to him,” he said. “I keep working on him and his people to come out and help us. I don’t think he’ll endorse in this race, but you never know.”
Fitzgerald raised only slightly more than $100,000 in the first quarter of the year, but GOP strategist Scott Becher said the Speaker is viable. “There’s not a real weak candidate,” Becher said. “Fitzgerald almost got the nomination at the convention. He’s going to ask Scott Walker for help [and say] ‘I basically walked through a horror chamber in the assembly to get your agenda passed.’”
Political observers in Wisconsin are less sure what to make of the candidacy of businessman Eric Hovde. Though he had little name recognition when he entered the race earlier this year, Hovde has contributed more than $1 million of his own money to his campaign. Much of that has been spent on television advertising to introduce himself to voters.
The challenge for Hovde, strategists say, will be to stand out not only as the alternative to Thompson but also as the alternative to Neumann, the best-known choice for voters looking to oppose the former governor.
Hovde has portrayed himself as a pragmatic leader who will fight the Washington establishment.
Hovde campaign spokesman Sean Lansing said that his candidate is most dedicated to jobs and a balanced budget but that his message appeals to both Republicans and Democrats. Hovde plans to work to “repeal corporate welfare” and remove troops from Afghanistan immediately.
“People have seen it before and there’s nothing to offer there,” Lansing said. “People are tired of career politicians. They don’t want to keep the same people put us in this mess.”
Fitzgerald said that election fatigue and an early primary—this year marks the first time Wisconsin will hold its primary in August—may lead to lower turnout. He said he believes he would benefit if the electorate is dominated by the party’s most active members.
Thompson said he believes that getting people to the polls would be his biggest challenge.
With good weather in late summer, people may prefer to go the ball games or relax by the lake, he said.