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Key Senate race caught in the shadows of Badger State events

By   /   August 13, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – Boy, these guys can’t catch a break.

First, there was recall fever and the accompanying elections. Then Mitt Romney taps Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate — making Ryan the first Badger State pol from any party to be selected to run for vice president.

At least Wisconsin’s GOP candidates for U.S. Senate had a few weeks to get their messages out. Maybe all that mud really was about making up for lost time.

“It was a good thing none of them made news (Friday) night in a big way,” quipped University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor and pollster Charles Franklin on Saturday, the day after the last Senate debate before Tuesday’s primary and the day of the Ryan announcement.

“Whatever advantage there would have been would be wiped out. A complete wash,” Franklin added, calling the debate between four like Republicans a draw.

The candidates — former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former 1st District Rep. Mark Neumann, Madison real estate developer Eric Hovde and state Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon — barnstormed the state Monday, primary election eve.

Each man campaiged in the shadow and buzz of Mitt’s pick, which has drawn the cameras away from what many pundits consider a top-five U.S. Senate race.

“A lot of the news coverage, instead of being about this primary, two days before it’s about the presidential ticket,” said Brian Parnitzke, statewide field director for the Fitzgerald campaign. “I think it doesn’t necessarily hurt us, but it does freeze some of the momentum we are building up.”

Maybe mark that in the “hurt us” column for a campaign that has long lagged behind the others but in recent days is seeing upward movement, according to internal polling. A Patch.com survey of “Wisconsin Republican insiders” found a plurality of support for Fitzgerald, the Legislature’s speaker of the Assembly and the candidate most closely tied to Gov. Scott Walker’s conservative reforms.

The Patch poll is unscientific, the news site said.

Fitzgerald has been running a distant fourth in most polls, tracking 13 percent in the latest Marquette Law School poll. That poll, of 725 likely Republican primary voters with a 3.7 percent margin of error, found Thompson out in front, with 28 percent, 20 percent for Hovde, and 18 percent for Neumann.

Thompson spokesman Brian Nemoir put it bluntly:

“We’re sort of the stepchild of the electoral process,” he said.

For the brunt of the campaign, state and national eyes were on Wisconsin’s unprecedented gubernatorial recall election. The four Republican candidates for Senate strategically aligned themselves with Republican Walker, a hero to Badger State conservatives, if only to stand somewhere near the glare of the political spotlight.

Ultimately, the GOP campaigns contend, the Romney-Ryan ticket and the subsequent press blitz will only serve to bolster Republican turnout in the primary election.

“Voters know what’s going on, despite all of the other news,” said Hovde spokesman Sean Lansing. “There will be a big turnout, and Republican voters will be very energized.”

Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, a known federal budget hawk, will only serve to galvanize conservative voting at the polls, the campaigns said. Of course, each contended their candidate would be the ultimate conservative to standout to Republican voters .

It’s a big race, too big to be lost in the shuffle, pundits contend.

The GOP candidates are vying to run against 2nd District Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the Democrats anointed candidate. The contest will decide whether the seat being vacated by long-serving U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, a Milwaukee Democrat, will remain in the hands of Dems or swing Republicans. That answer, pundits say, could ultimately determine which party holds the Senate reins when the dust settles in early November.

To drive home the importance of the point: Money.

Wisconsin’s Senate race ranks No. 5 in total spending, about $14.4 million, according to campaign cash tracker OpenSecrets.org.

That’s campaign spending that has seen hit-or-miss results in a state that has dominated national political news over the past six months — the U.S. Senate race often not included.

The campaigns — Thompson, Neumann and Hovde, at least — have spent much of their war chests on ads attacking one another.

“It’s been about the strangest Senate primary that there probably ever has been,” Parnitzke said.

Thompson: We’re not paying the ‘Plumber’

“Joe the Plumber” won’t be cashing a big check from the Tommy Thompson campaign for stumping in the Badger State, a Thompson spokesman tells Wisconsin Reporter.

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known by his nickname, “Joe the Plumber,” campaigned with Thompson early Monday in Racine.

Wurzelbacher, like Thompson, is running for federal office — the former in a race for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District seat, the latter in a tightly contested chase of the Wisconsin GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.

“Joe the Plumber,” so billed after asking then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama about small business taxes in 2008, has appeared on behalf of plenty of candidates. And he’s picked up some healthy honorariums in the process.

Wurzelbacher’s campaign rally appearance in February for Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Sam Rohrer cost the campaign $4,000, according to campaign finance report. The campaign did not return calls seeking comment.

He spoke at a grassroots-organizing event held by the Rohrer campaign on the day that Republican State Committee endorsed Rohrer’s opponent, Attorney General Tom Corbett, according to Capitolwire.

Asked by Wisconsin Reporter if Wurzelbacher was paid for his campaign appearance in Racine, Thompson spokesman Brian Nemoir said, “No.” He added, “We’ve got every dollar coming into our campaign going out” in getting out the vote.

Then Nemoir backed up a bit.

“We did pay for his flight in and out,” the spokesman said.

Several GOP campaign consultants told the Pennsylvania-based Capitolwire that paying a fee to a speaker giving an endorsement would be “unusual,” and that their campaigns instead have covered expenses for such speakers. Rohrer senior strategist Jeff Coleman defended the fee, to the news organization. He said it was agreed to before the surprise endorsement was given.

Email Kittle at [email protected]