Wisconsin Republicans worry about crowded Senate primary

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) speaks with the media following the Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2017. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans are growing increasingly worried about the high number of candidates running in a primary to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, fearing a repeat of the crowded 2012 race that put her in office.

Baldwin is seeking a second term in 2018 and Republicans nationally are targeting her as vulnerable, given huge GOP wins in Wisconsin in November. Donald Trump became the first GOP presidential candidate to carry the state since 1984, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won re-election and the party increased its majorities in the Legislature.

But with at least seven possible Republican Senate candidates making the rounds, to some the dynamic is looking eerily familiar to 2012. That year four Republicans slugged it out in an expensive and negative primary that left nominee Tommy Thompson, the former four-term governor, bruised and broke.

"You talk to the grass roots and they're still riding high from the last election," said Brian Westrate, the chairman of the 3rd Congressional District Republican Party in western Wisconsin. "Those of us who have seen the sausage get made a lot of times are pragmatically concerned about the Senate race."

Westrate said he would feel better if there was a generally agreed-upon candidate. Instead, there are about four Republicans who are making moves to launch a campaign and at least four others being recruited or thinking about it.

"Any one of them could be a fine candidate," Westrate said. "It's just unfortunate as it stands now there isn't any one of them. There's six of them."

Baldwin benefited in 2012 from being unchallenged on the Democratic side as she spent months raising money and defining herself as Republicans slugged it out. She defeated Thompson by nearly 6 percentage points.

She's taking the same approach now. Baldwin raised $2.2 million in the first three months of this year and had $2.4 million cash on hand. Johnson, at this point in 2015, had raised about $1 million less.

Eric Hovde, a millionaire Madison businessman, ran in 2012 and lost in the GOP primary. He's thinking about running again and said not having a GOP front-runner like Thompson creates a wholly different dynamic. Instead of focusing on Thompson, Republican candidates will be targeting Baldwin, he and others on the GOP side argue.

Republicans are confident that having Walker on the ballot seeking a third term in 2018 will help their Senate candidate. They also point out that Johnson performed better than Trump in 2016 and Baldwin underperformed Obama in 2012.

"Wisconsin Republicans are energized early to defeat Senator Tammy Baldwin because we know that with her record after nearly 20 years in Washington, she's deeply vulnerable," said Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Gillian Drummond, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, derided the Republican field as a "yacht sale primary" that includes millionaires and those backed by wealthy special interests.

"Tammy Baldwin is the only one fighting for a Wisconsin economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top," Drummond said.

Two of the potential Republican candidates — Hovde and Nicole Schneider, a member of the Schneider National Trucking family — are millionaires and could tap their personal wealth, just like Johnson did in his first race in 2010. Another candidate, Kevin Nicholson, has the support of mega-GOP donor Richard Uihlein, who has given $2 million to a super PAC to support his likely run.

The GOP Senate field in 2012 also included Mark Neumann, a former congressman who had also run statewide for Senate and governor, and Jeff Fitzgerald, who was then speaker of the state Assembly and whose brother is majority leader of the Senate and considering a Senate run this year.

Chris Lato, who worked for Neumann's Senate campaign, said he understands the concerns some Republicans have about having a repeat of the "pretty brutal" 2012 primary.

"Just beating the crap out of everybody won't help any," Lato said. "You have to emerge strong and united to take on Tammy Baldwin because she will be a force."

Recently in Politics