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In Wisconsin, Post-Recall Race Grabs Attention

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has some clear advantages in Wisconsin's competitive Republican Senate primary.

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.

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