Delegates Call Wisconsin Senate Primary Close

Posted August 30, 2004 at 2:23pm

Just two weeks before the Wisconsin Senate primary, Badger State delegates attending the Republican National Convention insist the field is still wide open.

Many of the delegates and alternates believe the race has come down to a battle between state Sen. Bob Welch and mega auto dealer Russ Darrow. But none was willing to rule out construction company executive Tim Michels in the Sept. 14 primary.

While the Wisconsin race is one of a dozen or so potentially competitive Senate contests across the country, it has been the last to take shape due to the late primary date. While state and national Republicans are cautiously optimistic that they can strongly challenge two-term Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in November, they cannot fully assess their prospects until they know who their standard-bearer is.

Perennial candidate Robert Lorge is the only one in the field whose campaign is flagging.

A good example of the bet hedging going into the primary calculus was former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson’s take on the race. Asked whom he was backing, the former Wisconsin governor said he has not thrown his support behind anyone.

“It’s gonna be a good race,” Thompson said.

Dave Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Republican Party, said party officials are staying out of the fray.

“Everyone’s pretty neutral,” he said. “It could go any way come primary night.”

That was the general consensus among the delegates gathered Monday morning for the state breakfast at the Broadway Millennium Hotel on the convention’s opening day.

“Eight people were gathered around the table [earlier] and there were supporters for all three candidates,” said Mary Willett, an alternate delegate from Phillips in northern Wisconsin. “Everyone seems to think that whoever they are supporting is in the lead.”

While no one spoke ill of any candidate — a fact that would have pleased the late President Ronald Reagan, who preached the “11th commandment” for Republicans — many delegates are clearly in one camp or another.

“Welch has been carrying a lot of water for Republicans for decades and he deserves the loyalty of the party for doing the heavy lifting,” said Phil Prangle, an alternate from Madison.

Welch also seems to have done a good job of building support within minority communities.

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce already has gotten on board with Welch and Robert Gonzalez, who sits on Welch’s finance committee, and hopes to bring the Hispanic Heritage Council — a conservative Hispanic organization that he directs — into the fold as well.

But just as the delegates have divided loyalties, so does the council, Gonzalez conceded.

Opinions also are varied about which candidate has the most institutional support.

Conventional wisdom says Welch has the party hierarchy sewn up, but Gerard Randall, a delegate from Milwaukee who supports Welch, says that is not necessarily true.

“Darrow has as much support if not more from the party stalwarts,” he said.

Former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow (R) is backing Darrow, and she has “signed up a number of prominent folks,” Randall added.

While money often is an indicator of who is in the lead, some delegates agreed fundraising will not be as important in this race as the grassroots and voter turnout will be.

Welch trails millionaires Darrow and Michels badly in the money chase, but he has a long history with party activists due to his tenure in the state Legislature and his association with conservative causes. He was the GOP’s 1994 Senate nominee.

“Welch has been able to connect with voters and will have strong grassroots support and that might be more important than money or name recognition,” Randall said.

Willett, the alternate from Phillips, said people are just now beginning to focus on the race and that the outcome will depend on turnout. Many committed party insiders chose their candidate based on who they think can best challenge Feingold in November.

“Russ Feingold is one of the smartest Members of the Senate and Welch can best match him in head-to-head debate,” said Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker (R), who has endorsed Welch.

In the most recent publicly released poll, conducted on behalf of the Darrow campaign, Darrow led with 44 percent of the vote, followed by Michels at 14 percent and Welch at 11 percent with a full 27 percent undecided.

The poll of 401 likely Republican voters conducted July 29-Aug. 1 by Voter Consumer Research had a 4.9 percent error margin.

Darrow’s competitors, predictably, questioned the veracity of the results. Most party activists believe the primary result will be considerably closer.