Buoyed by Trump's win, Wisconsin Republicans eye Baldwin challenge

For those tiring of continued talk of the Cheesehead Revolution, I’m sorry to disappoint, but 2018 will likely represent more of the same.  While the 2016 U.S. Senate race featuring Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonCommerce Department IG to audit Trump's tariff exemptions Trump trip to rural Wisconsin highlights GOP’s turnout concern GOP senator seeking information on FBI dealings with Bruce Ohr, former DOJ lawyer MORE and former Sen. Russ Feingold represented ground zero for GOP maintenance of the Senate majority, the 2018 Wisconsin Senate race against progressive champion Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinSinema’s Senate win cheered by LGBTQ groups Midterms: The winners and losers Senate GOP beats expectations with expanded majority MORE, who has faced fierce criticism over her handling (or rather lack of handling) of the crisis at the Tomah Veterans Hospital, may be the deciding factor in the GOP’s quest to reach a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority. 

The 2018 Senate map could not look any worse for Democrats.  In fact, according to the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, no party since 1970 has gone into a midterm playing more defense. Following the recent win by state Treasurer John Kennedy in Louisiana, Republicans enjoy a 52-seat majority.  Heading into 2018, Democrats will be defending incumbent senators in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia, all states which Trump carried by at least 19-points and in the case of West Virginia, by a staggering 42-points. Democrats will also be on the defensive in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

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And then there is Wisconsin. Johnson’s 2016 re-election represented an amazing electoral achievement, winning re-election as a Republican in a presidential cycle with at times little support from national leaders against a well-known former U.S. Senator. In fact, the last Wisconsin Republican U.S. senator to win re-election in a presidential cycle was Sen. Alexander Wiley in 1956. But Johnson’s re-election was also a stunning strategic victory illustrating the complexity of running for re-election in the age of Trump in a deeply purple state.

The 2018 Wisconsin U.S. senate race will likely reveal the extent of Trump’s impact on the new Midwest political landscape – a GOP victory would represent further proof of a fundamental realignment of the political tectonic plates, in the process supporting the argument that the Blue Wall is in fact no longer, while a GOP loss could signal that the 2016 Trump victory was simply an anomaly.

Much will depend on who emerges from the already nascent primary field.  The juxtaposition of the deep Wisconsin bench of conservative rising stars participating in the already frenzied silent primary with the tired progressive candidacy of Baldwin serves as further evidence of the complete decimation of the Democratic bench brought about by the self-promoting Obama juggernaut. As the GOP eyes a 60-seat majority, all eyes may once again focus on Wisconsin.

Who are those looking to take on Baldwin in 2018 and are they positioned to navigate the complex Trump terrain? Below are several names to consider, all relatively young, dynamic, and already actively jockeying for the inside lane.

CongressmenSean DuffySean Patrick DuffyHere's how politicians celebrated Halloween Fox contributor: Warren's ancestors 'rounded up Cherokees for the Trail of Tears' On The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills MORE may well be best positioned to capitalize on the newly discovered Trump voters of out-state Wisconsin.  Duffy represents the 7th District, geographically the largest of Wisconsin’s congressional districts, extending from Wausau in central Wisconsin to the northern state line, and an area of the state that went heavily for Trump.  A former District Attorney, Duffy is no stranger to the camera.  He met his wife while participating in the 1997 Real World: Boston series and is a world champion log-roller.  With eight kids, a dynamic wife, and a passion for the outdoors, Duffy provides a compelling personal story and has the potential to be a Rubio-esque type figure in the Senate.  However, he would have to work to improve his standing with the most conservative wing of the party.  According to Heritage Action, his voting record last session was the most moderate of the Wisconsin delegation.

In the 6th District, Glenn Grothman could also prove a formidable primary player.  A former Assemblyman, state Senator, and now congressman, Grothman’s congressional district has one of the highest concentrations of manufacturers in the country, potentially providing him with a unique platform to discuss the ramifications of Trump’s trade policies on domestic manufacturing.

Mike Gallagher, the newly elected Congressman from the 8th District, is unlikely to enter the race but may nevertheless find his way into the conversation.  Joining the Marine Corps the day he graduated from Princeton, Gallagher was deployed twice to Al Anbar Province in Iraq.  In addition, he served on General Petraeus’ Central Command Assessment Team, as a Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as national security advisor for Gov. Walker’s presidential campaign.  While in D.C., he earned a PhD in International Relations from Georgetown University.

The Executive.  Since fighting her way through a competitive 2010 primary, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch has been a staunch defender of the governor, surviving her own recall in 2012.  The mother of two and a dynamic communicator, she survived a cancer scare in 2013. Over the last six years she has impressed Wisconsin conservatives by carving out her niche as Wisconsin’s jobs ambassador.  She has relentlessly toured the state, meeting with Wisconsin employers and highlighting the need to address the skills gap.  She has also toured the state with the state’s Revenue Secretary, shining a light on Wisconsin’s still relatively uncompetitive tax climate.  While she has had the opportunity to expand her influence throughout the state, she remains strong in the state’s vote-rich counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, a distinct advantage for any statewide candidate.

In her own way, Kleefisch navigated the Trump landscape by staking out a position based on the binary nature of the decision.  She also emphasized as a cancer-survivor dependent on a variety of health care options that the repeal and replacement of Obamacare was personally a key-motivating factor in her support of Trump.

State Legislators.  With historic majorities in both chambers, it is likely several rising stars will consider a statewide bid to unseat Baldwin.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has been rumored to be under consideration for a position in the Trump Administration; however, a run for Senate could also be a next step.  A graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, Fitzgerald was elected to the Senate in 1994 and has helped shepherd Walker’s bold conservative reforms through his chamber since 2011.  In addition to Act 10, Walker’s signature public employee reform bill, Fitzgerald has nudged his historically moderate chamber in a conservative direction, gathering the necessary votes for right to work, repeal of prevailing wage, and further expansion of school choice.

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonFormer CNN host: Tom Cotton is ‘remarkably ignorant’ Pompeo says 'no one's going to argue' he and Trump aren't tough on Iran amid new sanctions Flake: Congress should not continue Kavanaugh investigations MORE and newly-elected Congressman Mike Gallagher represent an emerging class of young patriots nationwide who are being propelled into Congress following honorable military service.  State Rep. Dale Kooyenga could follow a similar path.  Elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2011, Kooyenga, a CPA by trade, enlisted in the Army in 2005, completing Officer Candidate School and the Military Intelligence Officer Course.  He ultimately was called to serve in Iraq under the command of David Petraeus.  In the Assembly, he sits on the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.  When not focusing on the nuances of the state budget, he has used his political capital to fight for education reform.  Recently he co-authored legislation that attempted to take over failing Milwaukee Public Schools.  He has also advocated for criminal justice reform.  His intense focus on fiscally prudent budgets combined with a passion for urban reform would make him an interesting ally of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSchumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress GOP pollster says Republicans could break with Trump on Saudi Arabia Overnight Defense: Trump says 15,000 troops could deploy to border | Mattis insists deployment is not 'stunt' | Pompeo calls for Yemen peace talks in November MORE (R-Ky.).

State Sen. Duey Stroebel (my former boss) in many ways is cut from the same mold as Johnson.  A life-long real estate developer, Stroebel won a seat in the State Assembly in 2011 and quickly made a name for himself by taking on public employees that were “double dipping” into their pensions.  In 2015, after unsuccessfully running for Congress, he won a seat in the state Senate.  He again immediately made a name for himself by taking on scores of special interests and demanding that any state budget include repeal of prevailing wage for public works projects.  Months later, he led the fight to demand an end to the sale of baby body parts following the release of the Planned Parenthood videos.  A full-spectrum conservative, Stroebel served as statewide chairman for the successful Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzProgressives flex muscles as Dems return to Washington Election Countdown: Florida braces for volatile recount | Counties race to finish machine recount | Trump ramps up attacks | Abrams files new lawsuit in Georgia | 2020 to be new headache for Schumer | Why California counts its ballots so slowly Beto supporters urged to 'upgrade' campaign signs for 2020 run MORE primary campaign and is a constant presence on conservative talk radio, his most recent battle being calling out protestors that disrupted the presentation of Ben Shapiro on the University of Wisconsin campus.  Re-elected to a full term this fall, he received the endorsement of Sen. Cruz, a potentially key relationship in a statewide run.

Also in the Senate, Leah Vukmir has been rumored to be considering a run.  A nationally certified pediatric nurse practitioner for twenty years, Vukmir was elected to the Assembly in 2002 after championing education standards in her children’s schools, even to the point of co-founding the Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools group.  A strong conservative with ties to the education reform community, she has now risen to Assistant Senate Majority Leader. An active member of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), she recently concluded her one-year term as its chairman. 

The Businessman.  Finishing a close second in the 2012 GOP Senate Primary, businessman Eric Hovde has been rumored to want another shot at the Senate. A hedge fund manager with significant real estate holdings in Wisconsin, Hovde campaigned in 2012 as a citizen legislator. Similar to Johnson, he often focused on the rising national debt. A Madison-native, Hovde’s father served as undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during President Reagan’s administration. During his 2012 campaign, Hovde was forced to deal with residency questions having spent the previous 24 years living in Washington, D.C. 

The Dark Horses. Like any good prospective candidate list, there has to be a few dark horses.

Kevin Nicholson’s personal story is unique.  A former Chairman of the University of Minnesota College Democrats, Nicholson experienced a sort of political awakening.  Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.  From 2006 to 2007, he led a 37-Marine unit on over 100 combat missions in Al Anbar, Iraq, earning the Navy Achievement Medal for his efforts.  Then from 2008 to 2009, he served in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, earning the Bronze Star for leading the “best Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (IED)” team.

Upon returning home, he earned an MBA from Dartmouth College and an MPA from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.  He began his business career at the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company and currently serves as a principal at a Milwaukee management consulting firm.  Similar to Cotton and Gallagher, Nicholson emphasizes his foreign policy credentials and would have the potential to be a leading foreign policy voice in the Senate.  While Nicholson’s lack of name ID outside of southeast Wisconsin is an obvious hurdle, he has made inroads with several key D.C. foreign policy hawks and may have access to a national fundraising network.

John Hiller is also a dark horse to watch.  One of Gov. Walker’s original political allies, Hiller has been a constant presence in conservative grassroots circles over the last two decades.  A successful real estate broker, Hiller served as treasurer for numerous Walker campaigns, and served on the Governor’s 2010 transition team.  Hiller briefly flirted with a bid for the 6th District in 2014, ultimately declining to run.

May the Cheesehead Revolution continue.

Jake Curtis is a Milwaukee attorney. He previously served as an Ozaukee County supervisor, policy director for state senator Duey Stroebel, and a specially appointed assistant district attorney for Milwaukee County.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.