By Mark Lisheron
MADISON — The race to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl in Wisconsin after 24 years is a political maven’s ideal. Too bad almost no one is paying attention.
The Republican primary features Tommy Thompson, a once hugely popular governor and the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; Mark Neumann, a former congressman and a right-wing standard-bearer; and Jeff Fitzgerald, the current speaker of the state Assembly.
Eric Hovde, an investor who moved back to his hometown of Madison after 20 years in Washington, D.C., continues to make overtures of running with millions of his own dollars that could alter the race.
The race could well be a mixed martial arts death bout for the soul of the Grand Old Party in the Badger State with the survivor earning a shot at U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-1st District, one of the most liberal members of Congress.
The outcome will have a great deal to say about where the state stands politically after the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the backlash in 2010 that helped elect Scott Walker governor.
“There are fascinating story lines, big names and not a lot of people talking about it. It has been a pretty quiet race,” Mike Gousha, who heads the public policy program at the Marquette University Law School, said. “Everything in politics here in Wisconsin is overshadowed by the recall.”
The recall of Walker might be the most divisive political event in the state since Wisconsin’s U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists in the U.S. Army in 1954 was televised nationally.
State Assembly approval of Walker’s proposal ending most collective bargaining for state employees early in 2011 triggered a punitive war of recalls unprecedented in state history.
The state Government Accountability Board is reviewing recall petitions filed Jan. 17 against Walker, the lieutenant governor and four members of the state Senate. Until a decision is reached on the petitions,no dates can be set for recall elections. They are unlikely to occur before June.
Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, said the U.S. Senate race is likely to remain in at least partial eclipse until then, compressing what would have been months of attention into weeks before the Aug. 14 state primaries.
“You wonder what the Republican Party folks will be thinking after the Walker recall,” Franklin said. “What kind of time and energy will they have to focus on this election.”
Nowhere is this siphoning of attention more telling than in campaign donations. Supporters gave Baldwin $1.1 million in the previous required reporting quarter through December. Thompson raised $656,000, Neumann $518,000 and Fitzgerald just $77,000 during the same quarter.
By comparison, Walker raised about $4.6 million in little more than a month up to Jan. 17, for a total of $12.1 million since the beginning of 2011, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Americans for Prosperity, the political nonprofit founded by conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch, paid $700,000 earlier this month for a statewide advertising campaign for Walker, according to the Washington Post.
“Right now all the money is flowing to the governor,” Gousha said. “This isn’t the kind of money Tommy Thompson is used to raising. You’ve got three Republicans out there trying to raise money, and no one is doing it like Tammy Baldwin.”
A lot more than money has changed for Thompson, 70, in the 11 years since he left the governor’s mansion in Madison for Washington. Months before he officially announced his candidacy on Dec. 1, the conservative Washington fundraising group Club For Growth unleashed television ads that called Thompson a career politician, a big government spender and a supporter of President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Club For Growth endorsed Neumann for Senate.
“The fact that Tommy Thompson is a liberal, big government Republican prompted us to get into this thing early,” Club For Growth spokesman Barney Keller said. “There is no way he can credibly claim he doesn’t have the same old tired support of the political insiders in the Washington establishment.”
The facts attest to a career on the inside. To run for Senate, Thompson left the employ of Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, in Washington, where he parlayed his four years as head of Health and Human Services into a lucrative career as a health care lobbyist.
His four terms as governor, from 1987 to 2001, are a record in Wisconsin. By the time he ran for his first term, Thompson had been the minority leader and had served in the Assembly for 20 years, fresh out of law school at the University of Wisconsin.
Thompson claimed several major conservative victories as governor: Wisconsin Works, the first dismantling by a state of its welfare system, and the first state-backed parental school choice program in the country.
At the same time, the state’s major newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, chronicled years of increased state spending under Thompson, including funding BadgerCare, a state government health plan for families without health insurance with household incomes too high for Medicaid.
In his role as a health care lobbyist and administrator, Thompson spoke and wrote extensively about ObamaCare. Thompson even assisted on the drafting of an early iteration.
Club For Growth concluded from the record that Thompson supported ObamaCare. In a painstaking review of Thompson’s statements, the Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact Wisconsin decided he had both supported and opposed it.
Vacillating might be as damning as taking an unpopular position in today’s political climate in Wisconsin. While Thompson was in Washington one of the most conservative governors in state history was elected. Staunch conservative businessman Ron Johnson swept progressive icon Russ Feingold out of the other US Senate seat. Both chambers of the Assembly are Republican controlled. Jeff Fitzgerald’s older brother, Scott Fitzgerald, one of the four senators targeted for recall, is the Senate Assembly leader.
“Thompson’s record could be seen for the time to be very conservative,” Franklin said. “The question is how is it being looked at in the modern era of conservatism. Can Thompson withstand this new small government onslaught?”
If he does, he will benefit greatly from a name recognition that may translate into electability. The Marquette Law School Poll under the direction of Franklin, on loan from UW, found in mid-February voters preferred Thompson over Baldwin, but Baldwin over either Neumann or Fitzgerald.
A significant number of young Wisconsin voters, Franklin said, aren’t even sure who Thompson is.
“Our polling suggests that 20 to 30 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin thinks of Tommy as a historical figure,” he said.
Neumann has built a political career as a champion of small government and business, although he has some of the same problem Thompson has with resonance. Neumann, 58, is a businessman who last won a major state election when he eked out a race for a second term in the U.S. House in 1996.
Feingold nipped him for the U.S. Senate in 1998. And in the Republican primary for governor in 2010. Walker got 59 percent of the vote, Neumann 39 percent.
Neumann also had to defend two of the solar companies he owns securing $497,000 in grants and $250,000 in income tax credits from President Obama’s stimulus and President Bush’s tax credits programs.
Keller said Thompson’s high profile begs an examination of a record that will be a liability, an advantage to Neumann who can run as a political outsider.
“Name recognition doesn’t mean anything to us,” Keller said. “The voters have a choice either to return to a state of free markets and limited government or an establishment, big government Republican.”
Fitzgerald has little money and neither the advantage nor the liability of statewide recognition. The representative of a rural south central Wisconsin district since 2000, Fitzgerald, 45, is known as one of the conservative young Turks who moved Wisconsin rightward.
Far more than the other primary candidates, Fitzgerald’s political future will be shaped by the outcome of the recall elections.
“Whenever he is asked, Fitzgerald always swats aside the money issue,” Gousha said. “He has always called his a bottom-up campaign.”
Swatting will not make the money issue go away. Gousha said he has the sense that Hovde is serious about entering the campaign. But other than a general disappointment with Washington, not much is known about the founder of the hedge-fund management company, Hovde Capital Advisors LLC, other than the $10 million he says he could raise to run a campaign.
“In a race where there isn’t a lot of money, $10 million is a lot,” he said.
Matt Canter said he expects the primary to be “chaotic, divisive and very, very bloody.”
The spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington said he expects the winner to be either Thompson, with the baggage of a Washington super-lobbyist, or Neumann, known as much for his conservative stands on abortion and gay rights as his stand on small government.
The beneficiary in either event will be Baldwin, 50, the first openly gay nonincumbent elected to the House who has so far had no trouble raising money, Canter said.
How much of an issue Baldwin’s sexual orientation and her voting record, among the most liberal in the House, will be in a statewide Senate race will vary depending on which Republican emerges from the primary.
“This is going to be a great test of where Wisconsin is on the political map,” Gousha said. “In any typical year this would be the race everybody would be watching. Now we’ll have to see what happens with the recall.”
Mark Lisheron covers congressional campaigns for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.