Baldwin Faces Unsettled Field of Potential Opponents

The Wisconsin Democrat is a top Senate target for Republicans.

Eric Hovde, candidate for the U.S. Senate, gives his concession speech to supporters during his election night party Tuesday Aug. 14, 2012 in Peaukee, Wis.
AP Photo/Tom Lynn
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Oct. 2, 2017, 8 p.m.

Wisconsin Republicans have two credible and likely well-funded candidates vying to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. But strategists are keeping their eyes on at least one other possible competitor.

Wealthy investor Eric Hovde, who finished second in the 2012 Senate primary after spending more than $5 million of his own money, is openly considering another campaign—a move that would likely inject significantly more money into a primary already expected to come with a steep price tag.

For now, state Sen. Leah Vukmir and management consultant Kevin Nicholson are the only candidates. Still, the potential for a late entrance by Hovde, Republicans said, underscores how unsettled the GOP field is.

“The fact that he has a window, however big or small, speaks to some of the uncertainty of some of the other two candidates,” said Wisconsin GOP strategist Brian Nemoir. “No one’s closed the deal yet.”

Complicating the race even more, there are rumblings that Republican Rep. Sean Duffy may be reconsidering his decision in February not to run for the seat. Hotline first reported that the congressman raised $550,000 in the third quarter, which ended Saturday, and had some $2 million in his campaign account—a sum indicating he may be preparing for the possibility of running statewide.

Duffy’s reemergence illuminates the opportunity Republicans see in a race against Baldwin. Their optimism is based in part on the state party’s recent success and President Trump’s upset victory in Wisconsin.

In the meantime, GOP strategists speculated that if Hovde runs, he could face difficulty winning back primary voters angered by his actions in the 2012 race. Some grumbled that Hovde’s expensive attacks against the eventual nominee irrevocably damaged former Gov. Tommy Thompson in that year’s general election.

“I think people will remember that Eric Hovde was the guy who lost the race for Tommy Thompson,” said Brandon Scholz, a GOP strategist in Wisconsin. “That’s going to be tough to get by some Republican primary voters.”

In an interview with National Journal, Hovde said he would likely announce his decision early next year and would take into account the political climate. He pushed back against the suggestion that voters would be turned off by his prior bid, maintaining that it was he who took the “most amount of arrows” in that race.

“After I lost and the general campaign was over, I had more people come up to me and say, ‘I wish I would have voted for you,’” he said. “And that is nothing against Tommy at all.”

If Hovde launches a campaign, Wisconsin Republicans are cautiously optimistic they will be able to head off a replay of that contentious primary. Without a prohibitive front-runner in the Aug. 14 primary, they said, the crossfire will be spread amongst the field.

Wisconsin Republicans said Hovde can afford to bide his time, given his personal wealth and statewide name recognition. In the interview, Hovde declined to share how much he would be willing to invest in a campaign.

The primary already has the makings of a high-dollar race. Nicholson and Vukmir attracted two prominent donors in the state: Richard Uihlein started a super PAC for Nicholson, while Diane Hendricks is serving as the Vukmir campaign’s finance cochair. Meanwhile, a super PAC backing Vukmir that launched Monday is run by Stephan Thompson, a former campaign manager for Gov. Scott Walker.

Vukmir, who called Hovde a friend and backed him in 2012, said they are “very ideologically similar.” But, she added, “It’ll be really up to the voters to compare,” pointing to her long public record. For now, Vukmir and Nicholson are treating the campaign as a two-person race.

Some Republicans said Vukmir starts off the primary with an edge, thanks to her deep roots within the state party. In her announcement video, Vukmir, who was elected to the state Assembly in 2002 and state Senate in 2010, highlighted her work with Walker on issues like Act 10, a high-profile crackdown on collective bargaining.

“Senator Vukmir is somebody who is well-known to all of us who have been around Republican politics for a lot of years,” Wisconsin GOP strategist Mark Graul said. “She’s been right at the center of it.”

Nicholson is playing up his background as a Marine veteran and political outsider. He is also trying to blunt the strongest line of attack against him—that he is a former Democrat—by readily discussing his political evolution to becoming a Republican.

“My story is the story of Ronald Reagan and many other conservatives,” he said. “It’s not an unusual story.”

Wisconsin Republicans are confident that the Walker-constructed party infrastructure will boost the eventual nominee. Democrats still lack a high-profile challenger to take on Walker, after potential candidates such as Rep. Ron Kind and former state Sen. Tim Cullen passed on the race.

A sign of the current candidates’ viability will come when fundraising reports are revealed in mid-October. And while the race could be upended by any new entrant, some in the party are already signaling that defeating Baldwin will be far more difficult than it may seem based on recent election results.

“I think Republicans underestimate how strong Tammy Baldwin is,” Scholz said. “It’s tough to figure out where to beat her.”

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