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Wisconsin Senate Race Will Be Test of Political Mood

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin will face the winner of the GOP primary in the race for Wisconsin’s Senate seat.

A former three-term governor who left the state’s top office after the 2004 elections, Thompson served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. He still has strong name recognition and a positive image in the state, which accounts for his early strength in the race, both in the primary and general election matchups against Baldwin. He has been endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).

But Thompson has plenty of baggage as well, including favorable comments about President Barack Obama’s health care law. And he is a high-priority target of the Club for Growth, the anti-tax libertarian group that went after Sen. Dick Lugar in Indiana’s GOP primary.

Though he is running as an anti-Obama, limited government conservative, Thompson is being attacked from the right by two main opponents. A third conservative candidate, state Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, is widely regarded as lacking the funds to compete seriously for the Republican nomination.

Former Rep. Mark Neumann has been endorsed by the Club for Growth (one of Neumann’s former employees and staffers now occupies a senior position with the group), Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.), and RedState’s Erick Erickson.

A serious, sincere and ardent advocate of lower taxes and less spending, Neumann has run unsuccessfully for a number of offices and lacks the natural charisma that some candidates possess.

Eric Hovde, 48, has become the greatest threat to Thompson, according to his own polling.

ovde, who started a financial advisory firm and bought a number of banks, grew up in Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin before relocating to the Washington, D.C., area. His opponents are reminding voters that Hovde, who has never before sought elected office, returned to the Badger State only recently.

Telegenic and with deep pockets, Hovde used a big statewide TV buy to introduce himself to GOP voters. He has hired the same consulting firm, OnMessage Inc., that helped elect Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in 2010.

Like the rest of the Republican field, Hovde is running to the right (Democrats certainly could argue that each of the Republicans is “too conservative” for the state), but his lack of a legislative record, his personal wealth, conservative rhetoric and personal style make him a very formidable contender for his party’s nomination.

The multicandidate race certainly benefits Thompson, who started with high recognition and a good image but always was vulnerable to attacks from the right and from an “outsider” candidate. In a one-on-one contest, Thompson is in serious trouble.

For the moment, the GOP race has become a Hovde-Thompson battle. A new survey of 564 Republican primary voters conducted July 5-8 by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, shows Hovde leading Thompson 31 percent to 29 percent, with Neumann at 15 percent and Fitzgerald at 9 percent. But the Club for Growth could change the current dynamic of the race by jumping in for Neumann.

While the group’s spokesman, Barney Keller, said “the Club for Growth strongly supports Mark Neumann because he’s the only reliable fiscal conservative in the race,” it hasn’t yet made a big financial bet on the former Congressman.

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