Stage Officially Set for Competitive Senate Contests in Wisconsin, Florida, Connecticut

by Jessica Taylor August 15, 2012 · 1:19 AM EDT

In the Wisconsin Senate race, it’s officially a Tommy vs. Tammy showdown.

A topsy-turvy GOP primary came to a close on Tuesday, with former governor Tommy Thompson clinching what once seemed like an unlikely comeback bid more than a decade after he left office. Thompson took 34 percent in the four-way race, with wealthy hedge fund manager Eric Hovde at 31 percent, former Rep. Mark Neumann at 23 percent and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald with 12 percent.

Thompson will face Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D), unopposed in her primary, in a highly competitive race to succeed retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D) that has far-reaching implications on the balance of power in the Senate. We continue to rate this race as a Pure Toss-Up.

Thompson faced fire from all sides in the slow moving primary, overshadowed for much of the year by the gubernatorial and legislative recalls. The Club for Growth got in early for Neumann, whose former aides have ties to the Club, and took particular aim at the former Health and Human Services Secretary for his positions on health care reform. Hovde’s late entrance into the race threw a wrench into the race. He spent nearly $5 million of his own money, and had the early airwaves to himself, spending heavily to boost his name ID. But the Club soon began to target Hovde too, and the race’s closing weeks, all the top three candidates were engaged in a circular firing squad.

Many GOP operatives believed Neumann had late momentum, but Thompson’s longtime goodwill in the state and base ultimately likely proved to be too much to overcome in a race that only required a plurality instead of a majority.

Most Republicans in the state regarded Thompson as the strongest challenger to Baldwin anyway, and some privately had concerns that either Hovde or Neumann couldn’t match up. And while the former governor once had crossover appeal to independents and Democrats, the 70 year-old Thompson now faces a much polarized electorate than in the nineties. The NRSC has reserved $5 million of ad time in Wisconsin, while the DSCC has not yet made a reservation. Republicans believe they can paint Baldwin as too out of touch with the state and were enthused by Gov. Scott Walker’s successful rebuff of the June recall, but this race remains very close and should be an evenly matched race.

In Connecticut, Rep. Chris Murphy secured the Democratic nomination with his 68 percent to 32 percent victory over Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz. Murphy will face 2010 Senate nominee Linda McMahon in the general election after the former wrestling executive easily defeated former Rep. Chris Shays, 73 percent to 27 percent, in the GOP primary.

Democrats can’t take the fall race for granted but Republicans have a steep challenge against Murphy. McMahon will need to run up a large margin in the 5th Congressional District, the most Republican of the districts in Connecticut, but that will be difficult since Murphy has represented that area since he was elected to Congress in 2006. We continue to rate the race as Democrat Favored.

In Florida, Rep. Connie Mack cruised to the GOP nomination with 59 percent of the vote over former Rep. Dave Weldon (20 percent) and veteran Mike McCalister (14 percent). Sen. Bill Nelson also turned back nominal primary opposition, but he’ll have much more to worry from with Mack in November.

While GOP strategists were initially down on Mack’s candidacy, citing his weak fundraising and stumbling campaign, in recent weeks there’s been an uptick of confidence for the scion of one of the state’s legendary political families. Mack may not match Nelson in the bank, but with outside groups and such a focus on the state in the presidential race, this one is becoming more competitive, and just last week we moved the race into the Toss Up/Tilt Democrat category.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.