By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — It wasn’t too long ago that Tommy Thompson’s rival campaigns confessed that Wisconsin’s GOP U.S. Senate nomination was “Tommy’s race to lose.”
Looks like Thompson is obliging, if the latest polls are any indication.
Of course, Wisconsin’s former four-term governor and Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, has had some help from his attacking Senate race competitors who have hit him, and each other, on all sides since the gloves came off last month.
The latest poll from liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling shows multimillionaire and political newcomer Eric Hovde leading the four-man field of Republicans, with 28 percent, followed by Thompson and a surging Mark Neumann, a former 1st District congressman, tied at 25 percent.
The candidates are running in a statistical dead heat, well within the 4.9 percent margin of error, according to PPP’s poll of 400 likely Republican primary voters conducted earlier this week.
After several weeks of nasty attack ads, all around mud-slinging and feisty debates, Thompson has seen his comfortable lead plummet in the most recent polls, while Neumann rises and Hovde seems to just hang on to the numerical top spot.
A race that once seemed Thompson’s for the taking has suddenly, seemingly, turned into a tight, three-man race to a primary less than two weeks away on Aug. 14.
“Tommy Thompson’s position is looking more and more perilous as his establishment Republican brethren lose one primary after another,” Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, said in a statement “This has become an exciting three way contest and it’s impossible to say what will happen in the last two weeks.”
Thompson, who has consistently tracked ahead of all comers, including the Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, polled as high as 39 percent in PPP’s February poll.
“It’s a concern about whether Thompson is sufficiently conservative that is driving a lot of his problems,” PPP stated in a poll release, noting 58 percent of primary voters surveyed now say they want someone more conservative than Thompson to be the nominee, compared to 29 percent who are content with him.
PPP said Thompson is posting extremely weak numbers with voters identifying as ‘very conservative,’ getting 21 percent while Hovde and Neumann are each polling at 28 percent among the respondents.
Thompson campaign spokesman Brian Nemoir said the election will come down to trust.
“In the end, this election is going to be about who you can trust (to) get things done in Washington D.C., and there’s not another candidate in this race with Tommy Thompson’s record of tax cuts, property tax relief and job growth,” Nemoir said in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.
Wednesday’s poll follows a survey a day earlier from national poll site We Ask America that found Hovde and Thompson tied at 23 percent, with Neumann moving up to 17 percent. Fitzgerald polled at 12 percent, according to the poll that claims to have asked 1,237 likely GOP voters in the Badger State who they would vote for. The poll has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.
PPP noted the momentum is on Neumann’s side.
The Janesville businessman who, like Thompson, has earned endorsements from some conservative national heavyweights, has gained 10 percentage points during the past month, rising from 15 percent to 25 percent in the PPP poll.
“His strength is coming from the most conservative wing of the GOP electorate,” PPP said.
Neumann’s campaign, which has pounded Hovde and Thompson in campaign ads, pounced on the PPP poll.
“This poll confirms what we’ve hearing all over Wisconsin,” said Neumann campaign manager Chip Englander in a statement.
Hovde seems to have stalled.
The hedge-fund manager and real estate developer from Madison has dumped in nearly $4 million of his fortune in an unrivaled TV campaign ad blitz that boosted his name recognition and his conservative credentials.
His political outsider campaign and surge in the polls also attracted heat from his closest competitors, with the Thompson and Neumann camps and their surrogates hitting Hovde hard on conservative issues.
“Hovde remains the unexpected leader in this contest but his momentum has stalled a good bit over the last month,” PPP said in its release. Hovde’s polling numbers and his favorability rating have fallen in recent weeks.
The race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee, has attracted national attention and big money. It’s a seat seen very much in play, a closely watched contest that pundits say could influence control of the U.S. Senate and the national agenda.
As of the end of June, Thompson had taken in $1.97 million in individual contributions, and another $149,000 in political action committee cash, according to campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission. Neumann had raised $2.15 million in individual campaign funds, and $53,094 in PAC money.
Hovde, meanwhile, posted $4.35 million in campaign receipts, with a small portion of that — $346,363 — coming from individual contributions.
Fitzgerald, as in the polls, lags behind in contributions, having raised $119,205 in individual contributions and $25,250 in PAC cash through June.
Baldwin is crushing the Republicans in campaign cash, taking in $5.8 million in individual contributions, and $571,788 in PAC money, according to the FEC.
The liberal congresswoman, without a challenger for her party’s nomination, has begun airing campaign ads. Recent polls have shown her outpacing all Republicans, a turnaround from a previous polling that showed Thompson the definitive winner in a head-to-head match with Baldwin.
Joe Heim isn’t sold on the latest polling.
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor said he still believes it’s Thompson’s race to lose.
He said Neumann’s surging could prove to split the core conservative vote among Neumann, Hovde and Fitzgerald, leaving Thompson, seen more widely as a moderate Republican, escaping with the win.
And while the Government Accountability Board predicts voter turnout at 20 percent, Heim said an Aug. 14 primary will be lucky to attract 15 percent of the electorate. A lot of those voters will be seniors — seniors who know the 70-year-old Thompson well.
“Thompson has the age distinction,” Heim said. “The older the voter the more likely they will know him and remember him strongly.”
Still, the No. 1 candidate, according to the We Ask America poll: Undecided at 25 percent.