Republicans Line Up to Challenge Baldwin

But the first-term Senate Democrat capitalized on a similarly crowded GOP primary in 2012.

Tommy Thompson's 2012 Senate campaign was hurt by an acrimonious GOP primary, and Wisconsin Republicans hope to avoid the same scenario in 2018.
AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
May 22, 2017, 8 p.m.

Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­ans are op­tim­ist­ic about land­ing a strong nom­in­ee to take on Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tammy Bald­win—as long as they can suc­cess­fully nav­ig­ate what’s ex­pec­ted to be an un­usu­ally crowded primary.

While Sen­ate re­cruit­ment in most battle­ground states con­tin­ues to pro­gress slowly, in­clud­ing in the Badger State, at least a half-dozen Re­pub­lic­ans are openly con­sid­er­ing cam­paigns against Bald­win six months after Wis­con­sin swung nar­rowly for Don­ald Trump.

Sev­er­al of them would likely mount well-fun­ded and cred­ible cam­paigns, rais­ing the party’s hopes of knock­ing off the first-term sen­at­or. But the pos­sib­il­ity of a packed field com­bined with a late primary is also em­bolden­ing Demo­crats, who be­lieve it could badly hobble the GOP’s nom­in­ee in the gen­er­al elec­tion, as it did in Wis­con­sin’s 2012 Sen­ate race.

“I have no doubt that this will be a very spir­ited primary,” Wis­con­sin GOP strategist Bri­an Nem­oir said. “Fig­ur­ing out how to win in a primary and in a gen­er­al—and how to bal­ance the re­sources that they re­quire—is a huge chal­lenge.”

No Re­pub­lic­an has of­fi­cially jumped in, though po­ten­tial top-tier chal­lengers in­clude Kev­in Nich­olson, Eric Hov­de, and Nicole Schneider. Hov­de, who ran in 2012, and Schneider, a truck­ing-com­pany heir­ess, are per­son­ally wealthy, while a su­per PAC bank­rolled by mega-donor Richard Uih­lein is sup­port­ing Nich­olson.

Con­ser­vat­ive state Sen. Leah Vuk­mir, who over­whelm­ingly won a straw poll at the state party’s re­cent con­ven­tion, is be­lieved to have strong grass­roots sup­port. Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing state Rep. Dale Kooy­enga and state Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Scott Fitzger­ald, are also weigh­ing bids.

“Oth­er states don’t have the is­sue we have, which is that we have no short­age of people want­ing to run,” said one Wis­con­sin GOP strategist.

While hav­ing le­git­im­ate can­did­ates is an ob­vi­ous pos­it­ive, the com­ing nom­in­a­tion fight is re­min­is­cent of the GOP’s ugly 2012 Sen­ate primary. Even­tu­al nom­in­ee Tommy Thompson suffered vi­cious at­tacks from fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Hov­de, who spent mil­lions of his own money.

Re­pub­lic­ans read­ily ad­mit the in­tra-party fight­ing was a ma­jor reas­on they did not flip the open seat, held by re­tir­ing Demo­crat­ic Sen. Herb Kohl. But they in­sist 2018 of­fers a far dif­fer­ent dy­nam­ic. Thompson, a former gov­ernor, was a clear front-run­ner in 2012 and had a bull’s-eye on his back, while next year’s primary lacks an ob­vi­ous fa­vor­ite after Rep. Sean Duffy took a pass.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans in the state have pressed pub­licly for the party to unite around one can­did­ate. Duffy re­cently told Wis­con­sinEye that a nar­row­er field is al­ways a “bet­ter strategy,” but that’s not how the race ap­pears to be shak­ing out.

Schneider has taken heat for past so­cial-me­dia posts that were crit­ic­al of Trump, while Nich­olson, a former pres­id­ent of the Col­lege Demo­crats of Amer­ica, has faced ques­tions over his con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials. Amid chat­ter about the can­did­ates’ money, con­ser­vat­ive ra­dio show host Mark Belling ques­tioned wheth­er the primary was de­volving in­to a “yacht sale.”

Demo­crats have wasted little time seiz­ing on the con­tro­ver­sies.

“While the GOP bid­ding war wages, Sen­at­or Bald­win will con­tin­ue to fight for a Wis­con­sin eco­nomy that works for every­one, not just those at the top,” said Gil­lian Drum­mond, a spokes­wo­man for the Wis­con­sin Demo­crat­ic Party.

With their nom­in­ee as un­cer­tain as ever, GOP groups are also work­ing to dust up the in­cum­bent, whom they ac­cuse of be­ing too lib­er­al for the state. The latest hit came earli­er this month, when Res­tor­a­tion PAC launched a nearly $500,000 ad buy cri­ti­ciz­ing Bald­win for her hand­ling of is­sues at the Tomah Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Med­ic­al Cen­ter, a con­sist­ent fo­cus of the at­tacks so far.

Demo­crats brushed off the early ef­fort, con­fid­ent that the na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment un­der Trump will be tox­ic for Re­pub­lic­ans.

“If they really think that is­sue is go­ing to be one-twen­ti­eth of health care and Trump policies in gen­er­al, good luck to them,” Wis­con­sin Demo­crat­ic strategist Paul Maslin said.

Demo­crats, who have de­ployed a half-dozen field or­gan­izers in the state already, also noted that Wis­con­sin voters since 2002 have bucked the party in the White House—with the ex­cep­tion of 2012, when they elec­ted both Bald­win and Pres­id­ent Obama.

Still, Re­pub­lic­ans are hope­ful that Wis­con­sin’s elect­or­ate has fun­da­ment­ally changed since Bald­win’s last race. GOP Sen. Ron John­son ran slightly ahead of Trump in 2016, and Re­pub­lic­ans eas­ily held a Green Bay-area open House seat Demo­crats had tar­geted.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans pre­dicted that the cam­paign ap­par­at­us of Gov. Scott Walk­er, who is up in 2018 and at this point faces no ma­jor op­pon­ent, will be an as­set for their can­did­ate.

“Hav­ing a well-run polit­ic­al ma­chine car­ried through for three statewide elec­tions, and it clearly showed the in­fra­struc­ture was in place in 2016 with the reelec­tion of Sen­at­or Ron John­son,” said Brandon Scholz, a GOP strategist in Wis­con­sin.

Still, some Re­pub­lic­ans are already sig­nal­ing they will need out­side help if their 2018 primary be­comes even nearly as nasty as what pre­ceded Thompson’s de­feat.

“I would have to be­lieve that there are those in the de­cision-mak­ing seats that re­cog­nize the need to step in­to the re­source void cre­ated by a primary for Re­pub­lic­ans,” Nem­oir said. “That void killed Tommy last time.”

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