By Andrew Thomason | Statehouse News Online
WAUKESHA — Candidates running in the Wisconsin Republican primary for the U.S. Senate tried to use their backgrounds, not their stances on the issues, to distinguish themselves during a debate Wednesday night here.
Some form of the phrase “I agree with my opponent” was common during the 90-minute debate among the four candidates hoping to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.
U.S. Senate hopefuls Jeff Fitzgerald, Eric Hovde, Mark Neumann and Kip Smith agreed on most of the issues raised during the debate — less spending by the federal government, no new taxes and repeal of the national health-care law.
Fitzgerald, a state representative who is speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, touted his relationship with Gov. Scott Walker and their legislative accomplishments, namely eliminating most aspects of collective bargaining with public sector unions and erasing a $3.6-billion deficit, as a way to stand apart from his opponents.
Fitzgerald said he and Walker are “joined at the hip.”
“I would not shy away from anything that we were able to accomplish,” Fitzgerald said. “We probably had one of the most (successful) sessions for conservatives we’ve seen in the state of Wisconsin.”
Hovde, of Madison, focused on his private-sector experiences as the CEO of his family’s real estate and banking business.
“I’ve spent the last 25 years in the private sector, building business, buying and turning around companies, and I have a vision to get this country back on track,” Hovde said.
Hovde said public anger at Wall Street and banks in general wouldn’t harm him in a general election.
“I’m very proud of the success I’ve had,” Hovde said “I’ve never worked on Wall Street. I’ve never lived in New York.”
Neumann, a former congressman of District 1, pointed to his experience in Congress battling a Democratic president. Neumann was part of the wave of Republicans who entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 that eventually led to a temporary government shutdown over budget disagreements with then-President Bill Clinton.
“When I was in Washington (D.C.) we got the budget balanced in a four-year period of time,” Neumann said.
Neumann previously sought a U.S. Senate seat, losing to former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., in 1998.
Smith, a physical therapist from Rhinelander, took the opposite approach of Neumann, by highlighting his inexperience in politics.
“I’ve been in politics a grand total of three months,” Smith said. He later added that he has “no prior experience” in government.
Presumed front-runner and four-term former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was absent Wednesday night because he was in Washington D.C. for a previously scheduled fundraiser, said Don Taylor, chairman of the Republican Party of Waukesha County.
The Wisconsin Senate race is one of the U.S. Senate contests that politicos nationwide are keeping their eyes on. The race is one of 10 toss-up Senate races, according to nonpartisan The Cook Political Report. Republicans are viewing this election cycle as an opportunity to close the gap, and maybe even surpass the Democratic majority in the Senate. Democrats hold a 51-47 majority over the Republicans, but two independents also caucus with the Democrats.
John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University at Milwaukee, said Wisconsin's contest is up in the air.
“Toss a coin. It’s as likely to be a Democrat as a Republican” that will win the general election, McAdams said.
He explained that Wisconsin is a purple state, divided nearly equally in its political allegiances between Republicans and Democrats.
Winner of the GOP primary will face U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-2nd Congressional District. She has the endorsement of Kohl.
The GOP primary is Aug. 14, but the Republican Party of Wisconsin, or RPW, will decide which candidate to endorse, and therefore which candidate will get the monetary backing of RPW, at its May convention.
The seat has been in Democratic control since 1957, when William Proxmire won a special election to replace U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.