Wisconsin Senate primary a contentious four-candidate contest

“Probably one of the most impressive Senate primaries in the country” is how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently characterized the four-candidate contest in his state to determine a nominee for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl.

When Walker spoke to reporters at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington June 14, he was one week removed from his triumph in the nationally-watched June 5 recall election. During that campaign, all four GOP Senate hopefuls abjured from any attacks on one another to rally to Walker’s side.

Declaring neutrality in the contest — one between former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson, former Rep. Mark Neumann, State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, and businessman Eric Hovde — Walker said his position “allows me to be a referee” in the primary held Aug. 14.

A just-completed Marquette Law School poll among likely Republican voters shows Thompson leading with 34 percent, followed by Neumann at 16 percent, first-time candidate Hovde 14 percent, and Fitzgerald 10 percent. A substantial 25 percent were undecided.

As it has been throughout the primary race, Thompson (who also served as secretary of health and human services under George W. Bush) is the candidate to beat. Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor is recognized as a leader in pro-business and pro-growth politics, a pioneer in the movement for school vouchers in the 1990’s, and in welfare reform.

But as known and beloved as he is, Thompson is felt by many to be a figure from the past. Critics note that it is unusual for someone with at least half-a-dozen buildings named after him to be running for office and that at 71, he is a bit old to be on the campaign hustings — much less a freshman senator. Noting that he failed to secure the endorsement of the state GOP convention last month, one newspaper editorial likened Thompson to Frank Skeffington, the septuagenarian big-city mayor who runs one time too many in Edwin O’Connor’s classic novel The Last Hurrah.

If anyone appears poised to gain from political stumbles by Thompson, it is former two-term Rep. Neumann. Having lost a tight Senate race in 1998 and the primary for governor to Walker in 2010, Neumann seemed content to return to his highly successful career in private business.

“But I decided to run because the issue that I worked hardest on — namely ending the deficit and not leaving it to our children and grandchildren — I knew I had to run,” Neumann told Human Events during an interview at his headquarters in Waukesha County. To no one’s surprise, the businessman-candidate offers a brochure of just where he would make cuts and eliminate agencies outright to end the deficit sooner than virtually any plan being discussed now — including the much-debated budget of fellow Wisconsin Republican and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.

Along with a strong showing at the convention (which eventually opted to endorse no one), Neumann got major boosts with support from the Club for Growth and from Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) political action committee.

Hovde had hoped to overtake Neumann as the “anti-Thompson” and, as the Marquette poll showed, was in a strong position to do it. But many felt that, after spending more than $1.7 million — much of it from his own fortune — on a television blitz, Hovde was still not in a strong position. The businessman-candidate has also been dogged by reports of his residing in suburban Washington until moving back to Wisconsin last year.

Last week, Hovde suffered a major public relations blow when he attacked the Huffington Post for posting a video of an address in which he said there were too many sob stories about the plight of poor individuals. He insisted the remarks were out-of-context, pointed out his charitable activities, and went on to challenge Post editor Arianna Huffington to debate him on what each has done for the less fortunate.

A day later, clearly wanting to get the bad press behind him, Hovde apologized for his remarks.

Analyzing the fall-out for Hovde from this flap, veteran Wisconsin GOP consultant Scott Becher told Human Events: “This truly absurd idea of asking Arianna Huffington to debate has raised for many Republicans the idea that Eric Hovde is running more to be on ‘Real Time’ with Bill Maher than to appeal to real voters. The big winners of this foolish attempt at spin are Fitzgerald, who is within four points of him in the latest poll after spending the equivalent of Hovde’s television commercial crew food budget on his Senate campaign compared to Hovde’s multi-millions,” and Neumann, “who will get another look.”

Marquette also showed Thompson leading Democratic hopeful and Rep. Tammy Baldwin by a margin of 49 to 41 percent statewide, Neumann and Baldwin tied at 44 percent each, and Fitzgerald and Hovde trailing the liberal Democrat.

Walker is right: the Republican Senate field is impressive. Whether they stay that way as the race continues and rally around the eventual nominee in August may portend whether or not Republicans can elect their first senator from Wisconsin in two decades.