Memory of negative primary against Walker haunts Neumann in Senate bid

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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In 2010, Mark Neumann took on then-county executive Scott Walker in the Republican primary for governor.

Two years later, Walker has survived a recall election and achieved folk-hero status among conservatives, and Neumann is running for Senate, and simultaneously having to run away from his past attacks on Walker.

“There are a lot of Walker supporters, obviously, in the state, and a lot of them are not happy with Neumann and aren’t going to vote for him because of the way he ran for governor in 2010,” said a veteran political observer in Wisconsin who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“Basically, he ran saying Walker wasn’t conservative enough. Looking back … I don’t think there’s anyone that would be making that argument today,” the observer added.

His prior campaign is a potential pitfall for Neumann as he battles it out in the primary, locked in a near-tie with former Gov. Tommy Thompson and businessman Eric Hovde, while state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald waits in the wings. And it’s a pitfall Neumann is facing head on.

In an ad that began running Tuesday, Neumann defended his run against Walker, and emphasized the fact that he had thrown his support to Walker as soon as the primary was over.

“When I see a problem, I like to do something about it. … That’s why when I saw the crazy spending under [former Democratic Gov.] Jim Doyle and his liberal friends, I ran for governor in 2010,” Neumann says in the radio ad.

“Frankly, if I had known what a bold, conservative leader Scott Walker would be, I wouldn’t have run. I’m just glad I endorsed him on primary night, worked for his election, and then kept on working right through the recall,” Neumann goes on.

Neumann has previously told The Daily Caller that the nasty ads from that primary are a non-issue between the two men.

But some Wisconsin Republicans remain unwilling to let him off the hook. The ads that Neumann ran in 2009 and 2010 went beyond nasty, according to writer James Wigderson, particularly on Neumann’s side.

“Primary voters don’t like it when Republicans attack Republicans; however, I think most of them are mature enough to handle honest criticisms. But Neumann’s attacks were so over the top in 2010,” Wigderson said.

The negativity was even more offensive, Wigderson said, because at that point, “Republican voters were sensing a real chance to win and … take back the governorship in 2010, and here’s Neumann’s campaign just doing everything that they could to wreck that opportunity.”

After Neumann ran an ad accusing Walker of running up state spending faster than former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, 12News reported that several prominent Wisconsin Republicans called for Neumann to stop attacking Walker, saying that it was only helping the Democratic opponent. Jim Klauser, a former campaign chief for former Thompson urged Neumann to drop out. The Wisconsin Republican Party also pushed Neumann to stop the attacks.

Wigderson is one of several conservative Wisconsin bloggers who made a point to criticize Neumann for these things in 2011, when he first announced he would run for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Herb Kohl. In a letter to Club for Growth president Chris Chocola and Sen. Jim DeMint, both of whom quickly endorsed Neumann after he entered the race, the group of bloggers expressed “great disappointment” that national figures were coming in to Wisconsin to try to influence the race.

“It is our responsibility to bring Mark Neumann’s lack of character to your attention,” the letter says.

“While we do not question Neumann’s past contributions to conservatism while he was a Congressman, his actions during last year’s campaign are completely unbecoming of a conservative candidate,” it goes on.

In a follow up post, Wigderson enumerated some of the specific complaints about Neumann’s 2010 campaign, including an ad that Neumann ran accusing Walker of being responsible for the death of a 15-year-old, after a concrete slab fell on his head due to sloppy construction of a parking structure. The construction problem turned out to have preceded Walker’s tenure as county executive, though Neumann never apologized for the ad.

Wigderson also attacked Neumann for saying at the time that his supporters were not permitted to enter the state Republican convention, crying foul, when in fact it was only because his supporters had not registered for the convention ahead of time, as required.

Just how widespread this sentiment is remains a point of disagreement among Wisconsin political observers. One unaligned campaign consultant said it was a grudge primarily held by political insiders, and that it would not decide the election, though it might affect Neumann by one or two percentage points.

The veteran political observer was of a different opinion, saying that “it goes beyond the geeks and the people who live and breathe politics; it goes down to the little old ladies who stuff envelopes. … It goes beyond just the inside blogger types and the conservative establishment.”

“The knock I’ve heard against the congressman is: ‘He may vote the right way, but I just don’t like him,'” the observer added.

Moreover, the observer said, the specter of the 2010 campaign feeds into a “growing anxiety among Republicans in Wisconsin that the primary is getting nasty, and it’s only benefiting Tammy Baldwin,” the Democratic candidate.

Indeed, Gov. Walker issued a call last week for the candidates to tone down the negativity, the Journal-Sentinel reported.

Neumann’s opponents are clearly aware of the grudge.

“I think there’s no question it’s an issue,” Sean Lansing, Hovde’s press secretary, told The Daily Caller. “You watched during the entire recall election Mark try to bend over backwards to make amends for how negative and nasty he was in 2010, and you’ve kind of seen him carry that through the entire campaign because he did burn a lot of bridges in 2010, and there are still really negative feelings about that among a lot of voters in Wisconsin.”

“He is almost awkwardly trying to attach himself to the hip of the governor and play nice, and act like their the best of friends, when really the people in Wisconsin realize that’s not the case,” Lansing added, saying the maneuver was “not working.”

Hovde began running an ad Tuesday that attacked Neumann for his negative ads this cycle, and drew parallels to those he ran in the gubernatorial primary.

“Mark Neumann? He’s the same guy that said Scott Walker’s record was worse than Governor Doyle’s. This time, Neumann’s attacking me instead of Walker,” Hovde says in the ad, entitled “Yuck.”

Asked whether they were concerned about the lingering grudge some people hold against Neumann, Neumann campaign manager Chip Englander emailed: “The polls show Mark Neumann is surging because voters above all else want a proven conservative. Neumann was rated Wisconsin’s ‘Most Conservative’ Congressman of the last thirty years. He’s written a plan that cuts trillions in spending. And he has the record and backbone to go do it.”

“Scott Walker has been a phenomenal governor,” Englander wrote. “That’s why Mark was proud to campaign hard for him two years ago against Tom Barrett and again during the recall.”

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