Wisconsin Senate Race Will Be Test of Political Mood

by Stuart Rothenberg July 11, 2012 · 10:17 AM EDT

Wisconsin has drawn plenty of attention recently, first because of the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker (R) and then because it is one of a handful of swing states in the 2012 presidential election.

But it is the Senate race for retiring Democrat Herb Kohl’s seat that could end up being the state’s most significant contest, if it determines control of the Senate.

The Democratic standard-bearer will be Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a graduate of Smith College and the University of Wisconsin Law School. She served on the Dane County Board of Supervisors before winning election to the state Assembly in 1992 and to Congress six years later.

Republicans tend to see Baldwin, the first openly gay woman to be elected to Congress, as a flawed candidate, noting her voting record and her identification with liberal Madison.

But even if Baldwin is “too liberal” for her state, that’s hardly reason for Republican euphoria. The Senate is full of Members who were “too liberal” and “too conservative” for their states, and Baldwin is a serious, well-funded and articulate candidate from a state that has in the past elected liberal Democrats such as Bill Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson, Russ Feingold and Kohl to the Senate.

That said, Baldwin could have difficulty appealing to moderate voters if Republicans can make the race a referendum on her voting record. The Madison Democrat ranked as the 21st most liberal House Member, according to National Journal’s 2011 ratings.

She voted against authorizing the invasion of Iraq, for the stimulus and cap-and-trade bills and for the Democratic health care bill — even though she preferred a bill that included a “public option.” And she has indicated her support for a single-payer (government) health care plan. She favors the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and opposed the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

But while Baldwin does not run from the progressive label, she isn’t going to allow Republicans to push her too far left. Her first TV spot, “Paper,” focuses on jobs and accuses China of “cheating” and costing the state jobs. But the spot also portrays the Congresswoman as someone who has reached across the aisle. “I brought Democrats and Republicans together to put sanctions on China now,” she says in the 30-second commercial.

The Baldwin team includes Diane Feldman for polling and Saul Shorr and Mandy Grunwald for media.

On the GOP side, the early frontrunner for the Aug. 14 primary was former Gov. Tommy Thompson, 70.

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.

The Club for Growth’s entry would improve Neumann’s prospects, but it would also improve the odds that Thompson, the group’s prime adversary, could win.

While the Republican race unfolds, Baldwin is free to conserve her resources and to try to define the general election in populist terms, as a choice between middle- and working-class voters on one hand and the super-rich on the other. Her website has portrayed Thompson and Hovde as the “Washington Twins,” a sure sign that she expects one of those two to be her opponent.

PPP’s general election survey of 1,057 Wisconsin general election voters shows Baldwin drawing from 44 percent to 46 percent against each of the potential Republicans, with her running even against Thompson (both with 45 percent) and trailing Hovde by a single point (45 percent to 44 percent).