By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Kip Smith seems to believe he is responsible for getting the United States’ fiscal house in order.
This Rhinelander physical therapist is on a mission, as quixotic as it may be deemed, to be the average person who makes a difference in Washington, D.C.
Smith, seeking the GOP nomination in the race for the Wisconsin U.S. Senate seat being vacated by long-serving Milwaukee Democrat Herb Kohl, speaks of a nation in need of salvation — and he believes he’s just the person to do it.
“I have an unquenchable desire to save my country,” Smith proclaims on his campaign website.
“The country is on a collision course, and we are about to head over the cliff,” he told Wisconsin Reporter in a recent interview. “We need our citizens to go back to Washington and do what’s right for the country … We need someone to be the voice for the state of Wisconsin, who will stand up and say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done and make sure we hold our lawmakers accountable.”
But while Smith desperately wants to go to Washington, he’s got a big hill to climb to get there, lots of them, really — not the least of which is being a political stranger, even in his own town.
“I haven’t heard of him,” said Kyle Wagler, host at the Rhinelander Cafe and Pub in this northern Wisconsin community of some 7,000 inhabitants.
Wagler said he likes the idea of someone from his town, someone from rural Wisconsin, making a run for the Senate seat, but he couldn’t pick Smith out of a lineup.
Others said the same, including Andy Loduha, chairman of the Oneida County Republican Party.
“I know he’s running for U.S. Senate (and) I know he’s a physical therapist, but to be honest with you, I don’t really know him,” Loduha said.
That lack of name recognition, Loduha said, is big trouble for a 39-year-old husband and father of two, who is making his first foray into politics.
“He’s going up against a political machine,” the Republican official said.
Facing the big guns
Smith is competing against political titans, such as Tommy Thompson, popular former Wisconsin governor who served four terms, after a stint in the Legislature and before his tenure as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush.
Then there’s Mark Neumann, former 1st District U.S. representative and businessman who has made a close but unsuccessful run for governor and U.S. Senate.
And Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, of Horicon, closely connected to GOP darling Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led budget reforms under the national spotlight.
Eric Hovde, a hedge fund manager and head of his family’s Madison real estate business, recently jumped into the race. Hovde, a millionaire many times over, is trying to follow in the shoes of Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a businessman well removed from the Beltway, the picture of the citizen legislator.
That’s how Milwaukee Business Journal senior reporter Rich Kirchen described Hovde, covering the candidate for a March 9 piece. Kirchen said “Hovde has the unique position in the Republican field of being the only declared candidate who is a non-politician.”
Ouch, Kip Smith.
Smith was a declared candidate before Hovde, but he probably shouldn’t expect the same kind of coverage his fellow contestants demand.
The long-shot candidate said he has a lot of respect for the well-known Republican field. He said he remembers growing up looking up to Thompson as a Republican role model, and Fitzgerald, he said, is like an older brother.
“We’re all friendly with each other,” he said. “We understand that we are all looking for the starting quarterback spot, and we understand not all of us are going to get it.”
Smith said he aims to differentiate himself by the fact that he’s not a career politician, someone who is not looking at the Senate seat “to be a career or the culmination to some career.”
Experience and money
While Loduha said he doesn’t doubt Smith's passion or sincerity, he would advise the candidate to start smaller — a school board, maybe, or a city council.
He said Smith’s lack of political experience will prove a significant liability, despite Smith’s concerns about the nation’s debt and the direction of the economy.
“The concerns that Kip (has) are legitimate,” Loduha said. “It’s kind of like, I may have concerns about flying through turbulence in a 747, but that doesn’t qualify me to get up into the cockpit.”
Another challenge, Loduha and others assert, is the unknown candidate’s comparably diminutive war chest.
Smith wouldn’t disclose his campaign finances until the mandatory reporting period April 15, but he said his campaign is picking up momentum and donors.
Neumann led all GOP candidates in the most recent disclosure period, through Dec. 31, with $825,865 in net receipts. Thompson had raised $656,504, and Fitzgerald took in $78,300.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison, the sole Democrat in the Senate race, led all comers, raising $2,496,264, with $1,818,452 cash on hand.
But Smith said his message is resonating with voters, and that should translate into support — in campaign cash and, more important, at the polls in the August primary.
He shares the core conservative beliefs of his GOP challengers. He wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act led by President Barack Obama, cut away what he sees as choking regulation on business, and consolidate federal agencies to streamline government and draw down the deficit.
Smith said the democratic marketplace of ideas will help establish him “against these titans.”
“They may have great name recognition. They may have wonderful war chests in the millions of dollars, which I do not have,” he said. “But I do have an army of excited volunteers growing every day, and (we’re) getting the word out.”
Off the radar
Two other GOP candidates —most Wisconsin voters have never heard of, candidates considered "fringe" by most political observers — are competing for the U.S. Senate seat.
George Lucia has made the fact that he is "NOT a politician" a selling point of his campaign. Lucia, of De Pere, has owned a small business, worked in retail sales and served in the military, according to his campaign website. He says he also has been "unemployed on welfare," has "experienced being bankrupt, deep debt, and recovering from bypass surgery."
The Senate candidate describes the United States during the Obama administration as "Obamanation," underscoring his apparent dislike for the 44th president.
"I am a conservative who recently joined the (R)epublican (P)arty as I find that their basic political views are mostly the same as mine," Lucia says on his website.
John Schiess, of Rice Lake, is no stranger to campaigns for high office.
Schiess, who has worked in the National Park Service, in credit counseling and as a teacher, has built a political resume of running for office over the years, including unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate, the House, Wisconsin 93rd Assembly District and Wisconsin governor in 2010, according to his website.
He calls himself a "conservative first, Republican second, wants the U.S. out of the United Nations, and asserts "strong local self government is the keystone to preserving human freedom."
"The federal government should not be issuing kingly decrees to the state over domestic matters nor should the state do the same to local governments via mandates," Schiess says on his website.