Stakes high for GOP as Wisconsin voters settle on a Senate matchup

Wisconsin has an open US Senate seat, and Republicans hope to pick it off on their way to a takeover of the upper chamber. Voters decide Tuesday which of four candidates will carry the GOP banner into the fall election.

Scott Bauer/AP
In this March 8 photo, Republican hedge fund manager Eric Hovde of Madison announces his candidacy for the US Senate, in Dane, Wisc.

In Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, voters will decide which Republican candidate gets the rare opportunity to vie for a US Senate seat that is newly up for grabs. The choice is significant because Republican party leaders see this as a possible pick-up seat in their bid to take control of the Senate from the Democrats. 

After Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl announced his retirement, his party nominated US Rep. Tammy Baldwin as his replacement on the ticket. In November, she will face the winner of the GOP's four-man primary, which includes former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, private businessman and hedge fund manager Eric Hovde, and former US Rep. Mark Neumann

Of the four, Mr. Thompson has the greatest name recognition: He is a former four-term governor and one-time secretary of Health and Human Services to President George W. Bush. While Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and GOP vice presidential pick Rep. Paul Ryan have not explicitly endorsed a candidate, both have had kind words for Thompson in recent weeks. At a rally in Waukesha, Wis., over the weekend, Mr. Ryan publicly cited Thompson's most notable accomplishment as governor – “welfare reform, getting people off of welfare, back to work into lives of dignity, personal responsibility, on to a life of hitting their potential” – and declined to mention any of Thompson's competitors.

Those words were reverberating in a Thompson radio ad by Monday.

Thompson had enjoyed a big lead for months, but in recent weeks he has seen it erode as Mr. Hovde – backed by FreedomWorks PAC, a grass-roots tea party organization in Washington – has surged. The PAC endorsement, announced in July, helped raise Hovde’s visibility. Previously unknown to his party, he is running for public office for the first time.

A Public Policy Poll released Aug. 9 showed Hovde leading with 27 percent of the vote, trailed by Thompson at 25 percent and Mr. Neumann at 24 percent. Mr. Fitzgerald, whose last campaign for public office was against Mr. Walker in the 2010 Republican primary for governor, was at 15 percent.

Another poll, released Aug. 8 by Marquette Law School in Milwaukee, put Thompson ahead with 28 percent, followed by Hovde at 20 percent, Neumann  at 18 percent, and Fitzgerald at 13 percent. The polling organization says the two polls' disparity is because it included mobile phone respondents, while the Public Policy Poll did not. 

The three front-runners represent different facets of the Republican Party. Thompson is a moderate known to work across party lines. Hovde is a fiscal hawk. Neumann is a social conservative. Whichever man wins, his approach will help the Republican Party to refine the message it wants to take to GOP and independent voters in the fall election, both in the Senate campaign and the presidential race, says Arnold Shober, a government professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

For example, Romney’s credentials as a successful business leader position him closer to Hovde. Both men say they have the solution to bloated federal spending and faster job creation because of their accomplishments in the boardroom. If Hovde wins, Mr. Shober says, Romney’s message will be validated.

“In a sense, the primary here is a test case for whether that fiscal, conservative message resonates well in Wisconsin, but also more broadly,” he says. “It will help determine what kinds of messages Romney and even Obama will be able to bring to Wisconsin in the fall.”

Any registered voter, not just Republicans, can cast a ballot in the primary. But turnout – or rather, lack of it – may prove to be a major factor on Tuesday. The Senate contest is the only statewide race on the ballot, and lack of bigger stakes could keep many people home. Moreover, Wisconsin residents have spent a lot time at the voting booth recently, enduring several special recall elections over the past two years.

About 870,500 people, or about 20 percent of the voting public, will show up to vote Tuesday, predicts the Government Accountability Board, which oversees state elections in Wisconsin. Besides the GOP primary for US Senate, there are also races in two congressional districts and dozens of smaller legislative contests. 

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