Report from Wisconsin: Looking at the GOP Senate primary

On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters head to the polls to select a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the retirement of Senator Herb Kohl (D), who was first elected in 1988.

Last month I spent about a week in Wisconsin, traveling from Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River cities of Alma, Pepin (where Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived), Trempeauleau, and Buffalo City (whose original plat foresaw a community to rival Milwaukee or Minneapolis but which never attracted more than a few hundred residents). In between I visited Madison, Tomah, Appleton, and Ripon, where I saw the “Little White Schoolhouse,” the purported birthplace of the Republican party.

Along the way I talked to people from all walks of life — priests, teachers (from private and government schools), lawyers, dentists, doctors, engineers, a Milwaukee County supervisor, a one-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate, a former Iron County supervisor, the president of a local historical society, a World War II veteran, and various others.

To be honest, not many people wanted to talk about politics. I detected a sort of “politics fatigue” in the wake of the recall election of Governor Scott Walker and other officials. Topic A wherever I went was the drought, which is being felt far more severely in the Dairy State than in Virginia. I drove along a lot of rural roads and the failing corn crop was visible nearly everywhere. The corn was brown, short, and fragile, not anywhere near the tall, green, vibrant crop one expects in July. Soybeans looked a bit healthier, but not by much.

Even in the cities, the drought was the focus of attention, if only because people’s lawns are in horrible shape. Homeowners are conserving water for flower and vegetable gardens, letting their grass go without.

I spent the better part of a day with a political consultant who is close to former Governor Tommy Thompson, one of the candidates for the GOP Senate nomination. He gave me the lay of the land and helped me understand the political dynamics at play in the Badger State.

The situation in Wisconsin is quite similar to the one we have experienced in Virginia this year. After Senator Kohl announced his decision not to seek re-election, Democrats settled on a single candidate, Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI2), just as Virginia Democrats did after Senator Jim Webb said he would not seek a second term, in that case choosing former Governor Tim Kaine.

On the Republican side, a popular former governor, Thompson, emerged as the early front-runner, but he was immediately joined in the primary by three candidates who were claiming to be more conservative than him: former Congressman Mark Neumann, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, and businessman Eric Hovde.

Similarly, in Virginia, popular former Governor George Allen emerged as the early front-runner, but he also had three rivals trying to claim the conservative mantle: Delegate Bob Marshall, E.W. Jackson, and Jamie Radtke.

Thompson served 14 years as governor before being picked by President George W. Bush to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. He had been in elective office since the mid-1960s, when he was first elected to the state Assembly (equivalent to the House of Delegates), eventually rising to be minority leader, the position he had when he was elected governor in 1986.

Thompson and Allen had overlapping terms as governors of their respective states, and both pursued welfare reform as one of their key initiatives during the 1990s. Wisconsin’s and Virginia’s welfare-reform laws are often acknowledged as the models for the federal law passed in 1996 (the one that Bill Clinton claimed changed “welfare as we know it”). Thompson also won praise for joining with urban Democrats to push a school-choice program through the Democratic-dominated state legislature, a program that has proven to be quite successful over the years and copied by other states.

Like Allen, Thompson has come under fire from his opponents for being less than a perfect conservative. He has also been open to criticism because he has not been much involved in Wisconsin politics since he joined the Bush cabinet in 2001;

That problem is even more severe for Hovde, a multimillionaire businessman who has not lived in Wisconsin for almost a quarter-century and returned to the state for no reason other than to run for the U.S. Senate. While I was in the state, I saw newspaper articles that reported that Hovde, a District of Columbia resident, had not even voted in elections other than for President for at least a decade. Hovde’s defense was that, as a conservative Republican in D.C., voting in other elections does not have much of an impact. (That prompts the question: Why did he choose to live in the District, where he built a mansion for himself and his family, rather than in Northern Virginia, where being a Republican may be difficult but not impossible?)

Naturally, Hovde has been attacked as a carpetbagger, but that has not deterred him from spending at least $2 million of his own money on the primary campaign. The spending showed in terms of large yard signs and billboards along the rural roads I traveled. Hovde signs were much more numerous than those of his opponents, including Thompson. Hovde’s efforts also made an impact on the polls. By mid-July, at least, he was nipping at Thompson’s heels.

In more recent days, however, Neumann — twice before a failed candidate for statewide office — has begun to catch up with Hovde in the polls, with the possibility that he could turn it into a two-way race with Thompson. (Fitzgerald has been largely a non-factor in the race, although he has been running as a key ally of Governor Scott Walker.) A lot depends on whether his momentum peaks or recedes by election day tomorrow.

Interestingly, Baldwin’s campaign was running commercials attacking Thompson and Hovde. It was clear that she would like to run against Neumann, who is viewed as too conservative for the progressive Wisconsin electorate. And the Club for Growth, whose staff includes Neumann allies, was running attack ads, too — against Thompson and Hovde! Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows.

So far as I have been able to determine since my return from Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson remains the favorite in tomorrow’s primary. (Full disclosure: Thompson and I are Facebook friends, although we have only met once, at a Cato Institute event about 15 years ago.) At age 70, this will probably be his last campaign regardless of whether he wins or loses in November. As Wisconsin’s senior statesman, he wants to cap his career with one more prestigious office: county supervisor, Assemblyman, minority leader, Governor, federal Cabinet Secretary … U.S. Senator.

One other factor should be taken into account: the timing of the primary election. Wisconsin has traditionally held its congressional and statewide primaries in September. This will be the first year the primary election is in August, in an effort to accommodate federal requirements for absentee ballots for overseas and military voters. Nobody knows what kind of turnout to expect.

In addition, Wisconsin has a “wide-open” primary. Like Virginia, Wisconsin does not register voters by party. Voters can choose on election day in which primary they will cast a ballot. Unlike Virginia, however, rather than being given one party’s ballot or the other’s, they are given one of each, and then choose which one to cast in the voting booth. If they mark one contest on one party’s ballot and another contest on the other’s ballot, both ballots are invalidated.

That means that, though most voters will be going to the polls on Tuesday specifically to cast a ballot for Thompson, Hovde, Neumann, or Fitzgerald in the Senate contest, in a few districts, they may also be given ballots from the other party for other contests. Will this result in voter confusion? I suspect not in many cases, since Wisconsinites are used to the system. In a close race, however, a few invalid ballots could make a difference.

Stay tuned.