Wisconsin Race in New Phase

Posted April 21, 2004 at 6:28pm

The race for the GOP Senate nomination in Wisconsin has entered a new phase, with debates now under way for the four Republicans vying for the right to take on Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in November and the candidates focusing on getting their names and messages across to voters.

How to get ahead in a crowded field of lesser-known candidates has been the essential question since all four men threw their hats into the ring.

Despite being the Republican Senate nominee in 1994, state Sen. Bob Welch (R) is only known to about 18 percent of Wisconsin residents, according to the most recent Badger Poll, conducted by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center on behalf of the Madison Capital Times and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Of a sampling of 500 residents, only 10 percent said they knew enough about Welch to form a favorable opinion, while 8 percent held an unfavorable opinion of him.

Auto dealer Russ Darrow was equally as known, though slightly less favorably. Eleven percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably while 7 percent had a good impression.

Construction executive Tim Michels was known by only about 6 percent of residents — who divided equally between those who liked him and those who did not.

A fourth candidate, Robert Gerald Lorge, an attorney who was the GOP nominee for Wisconsin secretary of state in 2002, was not tested. He is considered a longshot in the primary.

The poll, with its error margin of 4 percent, and the latest Federal Election Commission reports, reveals that all the Republicans have a long way to go in matching Feingold in familiarity, not to mention money.

Still, national Republicans remain cautiously optimistic that their eventual nominee can be competitive with the two-term Senator.

Roughly two in three Cheeseheads knew Feingold well enough to rate him — 47 percent liked him, 19 percent did not.

But Feingold had three times as much money in the bank on March 31, more than $3.4 million, than his closest GOP rival — Darrow, who had $1.3 million cash on hand, much of it his own money earned from his car dealership chain.

Michels banked $857,000 as of March 31, and Welch had a little more than $400,000.

“We don’t need as much money as they do,” Welch said, referring to Darrow’s and Michels’ need to build the base that he, as a 20-year-politician, already has. “Wisconsin has a long tradition of [electing] candidates who have enough money but not the most money — Russ Feingold being one of them.”

Michels’ campaign manager, Cullen Sheehan, said he was not worried about the money deficit, either.

“Money is not going to be the factor in this race,” he said. “Whoever has the best organization and the best message” will win.

The three leading GOP campaigns agree that the round of debates that began last week, sponsored by the state party, should help their candidates gain needed name recognition.

Welch in particular believes he has the biggest potential to tap into the Republican grassroots for support.

“It becomes very clear, once people hear us talk, that one guy in this race knows the issues and has been around 20 years and knows what it’s going to take to beat Russ Feingold and that’s me,” he said.

Eric Schutt, Darrow’s campaign manager, said it’s too early to declare a frontrunner.

“Until all three campaigns really start to enter the public phase, until you see that response, you won’t have a clear sense of what people are thinking,” he said.

Wisconsin Democrats see Welch as the pack leader and have already begun to target him.

The state party circulated a news release last month declaring “the gloves are off,” in reference to the pledge, signed by the three GOP candidates before Lorge joined the race, to focus their attacks on Feingold, not each other.

“After a string of losses in several county GOP straw polls, Welch on March 8 accused his opponents of stuffing the ballot box,” the news release said.

Sheehan, the Michels operative, said that was much ado about nothing and he thinks the candidates will be able to keep their word.

One of the county Republican organizations holding a straw poll allowed anyone who paid for a lunch — including campaign aides — to vote, Sheehan explained.

“We’re talking about 75 people in a room on a Saturday. It still didn’t change the outcome,” he said.

A charge that has more staying power is one that Welch is happy to bring up.

On his Web site and in meetings of the party faithful, he repeatedly points out that both Michels and Darrow contributed to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s campaign.

He also reminds voters that Darrow gave money to Feingold as well.

Each candidate will try to stress why he is the better man but “no punches landed” yet, Welch said.

“The whole idea of the pledge is to not hurt the other guys vis-à-vis Feingold,” he added. Mentioning the contributions “doesn’t break the pledge and that’s why I think my primary opponents have not said anything.”

Seth Boffeli, spokesman for the Wisconsin Democrats, said he doubts the “clean campaign” pledge will hold.

“It’s starting to get to crunch time and … they’re starting to get a little more nasty,” he said.

Schutt says that the only people to accuse Republicans of breaking the pledge are Democrats.

Currently, Welch might be too busy to criticize his opponents. He is now combating charges that he violated Federal Election Commission rules.

Democrats filed a complaint with the agency alleging that Welch used state campaign money for his Senate race.

“It’s all cooked up,” he said. “It’s politically motivated.”

To counter the charges, his campaign will post all of his tax returns and FEC reports as soon as possible, Welch said.

“I have nothing to hide; I’ve never had my integrity questioned in the past,” he said.

Another rumor Welch has had to tamp basically goes that he has strong grassroots support in Wisconsin but that party elders in Washington prefer wealthy candidates Michels and Darrow to him.

A columnist in the National Review recently wrote: “Washington seems to prefer potential self-funder Tim Michels.”

A GOP strategist close to the race said that Michels can more sharply draw contrasts with Feingold because of his business and military background.

Michels was an Army Airborne Ranger Infantry officer, rising to the rank of major.

Michels is already on the air, albeit with a small buy, but even with those advantages, “Republicans are not throwing their lot behind someone” just yet, the source said.

Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the party is waiting for the nominee to emerge and that person will have their full support.

“Whoever comes through the primary is going to hit the ground running and have a seven week sprint to the general election and be in good shape,” he said.