‘Usually, the day before the election, you know what’s going to happen,” says Mark Graul, a Wisconsin GOP strategist. “We don’t know what’s going to happen here. There’s certainly a scenario for three of the candidates to win, and there’s even a scenario for all four candidates to win.”
The four Senate candidates Graul is referring to are former governor Tommy Thompson, business leader Eric Hovde, former congressman Mark Neumann, and speaker of the state assembly Jeff Fitzgerald, who are squaring off in a Republican primary today.
“It’s very, very fluid,” says Charlie Sykes, a popular conservative radio host in Wisconsin. “I know some pretty savvy Republicans who’ve changed their minds twice or more so far.”
This weekend, during his rally in Waukesha, Wis., Paul Ryan had some kind words for Thompson — something the campaign quickly capitalized on, making a radio ad featuring Ryan saying, “Tommy Thompson — welfare reform, getting people off of welfare, back to work into lives of dignity, personal responsibility, on to a life of hitting their potential.” Scott Walker, too, recently praised Thompson and agreed to his words’ being used in a Thompson ad.
Neither Walker nor Ryan has explicitly endorsed Thompson, but their compliments — and the replay of those compliments in ads — could have an effect.“There’s nothing more potent in Wisconsin politics than Scott Walker and Paul Ryan,” observes Sykes.
Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, thinks that Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate — which dominated the political scene in Wisconsin this weekend — could hurt the lesser-known candidates.“It’s really bad news for guys like Mark Neumann and Eric Hovde, who thought they could make the last four-day push to try to overtake Tommy Thompson,” he says.
However, Brian Schimming, first vice chairman of the state GOP and a personal supporter of Thompson, thinks Neumann has captured some last-minute momentum. “What you’ve seen in the last ten days is a Neumann surge,” he says. “Neumann finally went up on the air.”
The most recent poll, by Public Policy Polling, shows Hovde in the lead at 27 percent, trailed by Thompson (25 percent), Neumann (24 percent), and Fitzgerald (15 percent).
All the campaigns remain optimistic. “I think that the campaign is garnering momentum at the key time,” says Brian Nemoir, a senior adviser to Thompson. “Over the past month, month and a half, you have seen Eric surge in the polls, while Governor Thompson has continually declined,” says Hovde spokesman Sean Lansing. “As we’ve seen across the country in Texas, Nebraska, [and] Missouri, the conservative surging in the polls in the end wins, and that’s Mark Neumann,” says Neumann campaign manager Chip Englander. “In the last month or so, since the three other guys started going negative on each other, there’s definitely been a lot of support my way,” remarks Jeff Fitzgerald.
Unlike some of the other Senate races this cycle, this race features no clear tea-party candidate. Hovde has been backed by FreedomWorks (based on their polls of in-state activists), while Neumann has received the backing of the Tea Party Express and Club for Growth. “As far as I can tell, it’s basically the guys who are out of state [backing Neumann] versus the actual grassroots [backing Hovde],” says Sykes.
Further complicating the race is the fact that voters have not forgotten Neumann’s primary fight with Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial election. “There’s just so much animosity towards Neumann among some Republicans because of the rough race he ran against Scott Walker,” remarks Schneider. “Neumann ran a fairly dirty campaign.”
Hovde stresses his business background on the stump. “This is clearly an election about the economy, and Eric is the only candidate in this race who has spent his career in the private sector, and not in politics,” says Lansing. Neumann is highlighting his conservative record. “He was rated Wisconsin’s most conservative congressman in the last 30 years,” comments Englander. “He’s the only candidate that has a plan that balances the budget. He’s identified 150 government programs he would eliminate or cut worth trillions of dollars.”
Fitzgerald makes his case based on the public-employee-union reforms. “It’s because of what I’ve been able to accomplish as speaker in the last year and a half,” he says. “I’m the guy who delivered on the reforms that me and Scott Walker put through, really changed the course of this state. “
And Thompson is running as the most electable conservative. “His pitch is this: You need someone who’s got the strong conservative leadership, number one, and number two, you need somebody who can win in November,” says Nemoir. “He’s the guy who has won statewide five times by convincing margins, and he’s the only candidate in this race that has done that.”
According to polls, Thompson has the best chance of beating Democratic candidate Tammy Baldwin: Thompson is less than a point behind her in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, while his competitors trail Baldwin by an average of two points (Hovde), three points (Neumann), and eight points (Fitzgerald).
However, these differences aren’t huge, and it is not clear that Thompson’s competitors would lose. Graul, looking at the Republicans elected in 2010 and how Walker survived the recall, remarks that the state’s voters “really are looking for conservative solutions.” Schimming sees Baldwin, currently a congresswoman, as too liberal for the state. “They have probably the most liberal statewide candidate that they’ve had in decades on the ballot in Tammy Baldwin,” Schimming adds. “If there’s a 434-to-1 vote in the House, she’s the one.”
Regardless of today’s outcome, Wisconsin Republicans are hoping to change the recent course of history and send another Republican senator to join Ron Johnson in Washington.
“We haven’t had a second Republican in the U.S. Senate,” says Schimming, “since Joe McCarthy died in 1957.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.