Walker, Ryan have upstaged little-noticed Wisconsin Senate primary

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Four Republicans face off on Tuesday in a little-noticed Senate Republican primary in Wisconsin, where the race is tight and the winner unknown.

For a race that is expected to help determine which party controls the Senate, the primary to choose the Republican nominee has received little attention. First, it was put on the back burner as state Republicans rallied behind Gov. Scott Walker to help him successfully ward off a recall challenge.

Then, as the race entered its final hours, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced that Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan would be his running mate, upstaging the impending Senate primary.

Still, the race is a set to be a close one, with former Gov. Tommy Thompson, businessman Eric Hovde and former congressman Mark Neumann locked in a statistical tie, according to recent polls. Speaker of the State Assembly Jeff Fitzgerald trails behind.

The winner of the primary will face off against Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, in what is expected to be one of the tightest Senate races of the 2012 cycle.

Thompson began the race with a tremendous lead, but has since faded. His numbers show the damage done by his opponents’ attacks, most aggressively from the conservative Club for Growth, which is backing Neumann. In the final days before the election, he trotted out a somewhat eclectic group of endorsements from former presidential hopeful Herman Cain, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joe “the plumber” Wurzelbacher, with Cain stumping for the former governor on Sunday and Wurzelbacher campaigning with him on Monday. Thompson has been haunted by comments he made seemingly expressing support for Obamacare, and many have suggested that he is too moderate a Republican for this day and age.

Neumann, who has been endorsed by the Club for Growth, Tea Party Express, and tea party stalwarts Sens. Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey and Mike Lee, has tried to cast the narrative of the race as one of tea party versus the establishment. It’s a model that has been successful for candidates like Ted Cruz in Texas and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. But Neumann still has the scars from a 2010 primary run for governor against now-Gov. Scott Walker. The primary was nasty, and some people in the state still hold it against him — more so, perhaps, now that Walker has achieved folk-hero status having survived a recall over his reform of public employee union benefits.

Hovde, a businessman, has also been running as the outsider, being the only person in the race who has never held public office. Critics, however, argue that having lived in Washington, D.C. for many years before recently moving back to his home state of Wisconsin, he is as much a creature of the Beltway as Thompson or Neumann. Since he shot to the top of the polls in the past few months, displacing Neumann for a time, he has borne the brunt of many attacks recently.

The most recent poll of the race, from Public Policy Polling (PPP), puts Hovde at 27 percent, Thompson at 25 percent and Neumann at 24 percent, while Fitzgerald lags at 15 percent. Those numbers remain largely unchanged from PPP’s last poll a week earlier, though recent weeks have seen Neumann gaining momentum in the race.

Low turnout is expected, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports, in large part because the race has been forced to take a back seat to other major political events since the beginning. This, pollster Charles Franklin told the paper, could make the race even closer.

Moving into the general election, a Quinnipiac/CBS/New York Times poll found Thompson to be the strongest candidate against Baldwin, tying her with 47 percent of the vote. But Neumann does almost as well, losing by a mere 3 points to Baldwin, 48-45; as does Hovde, who loses 47-43. Fitzgerald is the weakest candidate in the general election, as in the primary.

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Alexis Levinson