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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