Recall leaves Wisconsin voters exhausted for GOP Senate primary

In a Senate primary that could determine control of Congress, no one’s paying much attention.

Wisconsin voters — a few, at least — will head to the polls Tuesday to determine the Republican nominee for the seat of retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) in a race many predict will have low turnout.

Any of three viable candidates could pull off the win in what should be a top-tier primary, but voter exhaustion following the state’s hard-fought gubernatorial recall, combined with home-state excitement over Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has pushed the campaigns of former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), businessman Eric Hovde (R) and Tea Party favorite and former Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.) out of the minds of all but the most dedicated voters.
“Those poor guys in the Senate race must just be apoplectic. Couldn’t Romney just have waited until Wednesday?” joked University of Wisconsin Professor Charles Franklin. “These guys got stepped on by the recall, stepped on by the Olympics, and when they finally think it’s their weekend, the Ryan pick happens. They weren’t just pushed off the front page, they went deep into the local section.”
Both public and private polls show all three within reach of a win, with Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R) stuck in the low double digits. Polling shows Thompson as Republicans’ best chance of defeating Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in the fall, and whether he wins or not will determine how competitive the seat is for the GOP, which needs to win a net of four seats if President Obama is reelected to take control of the chamber.
Thompson began the race as a heavy favorite, with near-universal name identification in the state after more than a decade as governor followed by a stint as President George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services and a brief presidential run. Neumann was best known to Republicans for his losing primary race against now-Gov. Scott Walker (R), while Hovde was barely known at all.
But Thompson has been hurt by weak fundraising totals as well as his more centrist healthcare views, which include early support of an individual mandate requirement in a healthcare plan. Hovde has spent more than $4 million of his own money on the race, and Neumann has the support of the big-spending, fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which is fresh off a victory in Texas's Senate primary, as well as the Tea Party Express and Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund.
The Club aired ads blasting both Hovde and Thompson, as did the Democratic super-PAC Majority PAC, a reflection of Democrats’ private views that Neumann would be their easiest opponent in the fall.
But a race that had finally begun to gain some attention despite Republican voters’ exhaustion after Walker’s hard-fought recall victory in June was put once again on the backburner with Ryan’s elevation to the presidential ticket.
Thompson had to change the time of a planned Sunday rally with Herman Cain in order to avoid conflicting with a “homecoming” rally for Ryan and Romney in Waukesha Sunday evening, and while Neumann pushed ahead in barnstorming the state, his stump speeches received scant coverage.
It’s unclear which candidate will benefit from all the distractions. Some in the state speculated that Thompson would be helped because it cut into the momentum Neumann had shown in the past week, while others said it could depress turnout and hurt Thompson’s chances since polling shows he’s by far the best known but that Hovde and Neumann have more dedicated political bases.

More in Transportation

GOP candidates mum on transport funding in debates

Read more »