By Kevin Binversie | Wisconsin Reporter
Overshadowed by recall kerfuffle involving Gov. Scott Walker recall kerfuffle, the race to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl finally is on center stage. Want to guess when the nuclear bombs start dropping in the GOP primary?
I’m penciling in July 9.
That’s the date most likely given the events calendar. This upcoming Saturday marks the end of the latest fundraising quarter. Rather than savaging one another, the four Republican U.S. Senate campaigns will be more focused on ensuring they have the cash to make it through the primary. It’s best to wage war when you know what’s in your arsenal.
Soon to follow is the Fourth of July holiday and its parades. Campaign media buyers won’t want to launch ads if their audience could be on vacation for all or part of the first week of July.
That makes this race an all-out, five-week sprint to Aug. 14, when voters decide which Republican candidate takes on Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of the Madison area for the general election matchup in November.
Mark Graul, a GOP strategist not tied to any senate campaign, said that while quiet in public, each campaign is a hive of activity.
“These campaigns are laying the groundwork for what will be an intense effort over the last month of the primary,” said Graul. “The eclipse of the recall has hid the fact that this race could very well decide which party controls the U.S. Senate in 2013.”
Last week’s Marquette Law School poll has former Gov. Tommy Thompson leading his primary opponents by 18 points – 34 percent to 16 percent. Rasmussen Reports shows him leading Baldwin by 16 points. Other Republicans are within the margin of error against Baldwin.
What happens once the ads start flying is anyone’s guess. Last week Madison businessman Eric Hovde said during a lunch reception sponsored by the website “WisPolitics.Com” he expected the race to become “nasty.”
But who goes nasty first?
Right or wrong, whenever “nasty” gets tossed around in Wisconsin campaigns, few insiders look farther than former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, R-1st District. Democrats still hate him for his commercials against former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in their 1998 U.S. Senate race. While some conservatives still have issues with Neumann for when his campaign spread rumors and lies about Walker during their 2010 gubernatorial primary.
Neumann’s campaign has said their candidate has mended fences with the base and learned lessons from 2010. Former campaign professionals like me reserve judgment.
Or will Hovde go negative first?
Asked last week about how the campaign would overcome Thompson’s current lead, Hovde spokesman Sean Lansing told Wisconsin Reporter, “We've been positive so far. I don't know if that's going to change. We're certainly going to point out our opponent’s record and make our argument.”
A number of unknowns will affect the primary. First, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who has had fund raising trouble, and whether he parlayed his first-place finish in the endorsement vote at last month’s state GOP convention into a cash infusion.
Then there’s the questionable role of third-parties. Groups such as the Club for Growth, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and his Senate Conservative Fund and Citizens United have all backed Neumann’s candidacy and have been very active in Republican Senate primaries this cycle in Indiana, Nebraska and Texas.
But the biggest unknown concerns the depth of Thompson’s support. While he’s leading in the Marquette poll, 25 percent of those polled still had no preference in the race. With all the political firepower trained on the former four-term governor, the next two months could be some of the most fascinating in Tommy Thompson’s political career.
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, and has worked at the Heritage Foundation and on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.