In Wisconsin, there's a race to replace retiring Democratic senator Herb Kohl. The state's Democrats have coalesced around Representative Tammy Baldwin, who's currently serving her seventh term in the House. But on the Republican side, there's a messy and divisive four-way contest. It includes the state's former governor, Tommy Thompson, as well as several other candidates who are positioning themselves to the right of Thompson.
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Wisconsin voters head to the polls again next week, just two months after their first ever gubernatorial recall election. Defeating that recall brought the state's Republicans together, but choosing among four GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate is showcasing the party's divisions, as Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports.
SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: If former Governor Tommy Thompson had announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate a decade or so ago, his name alone would have cleared the Republican field. Thompson won four terms as governor in the '80s and '90s before leaving for a cabinet job in Washington. But that was another era in Wisconsin. Thompson is 70 and at rallies he feels the need to bark about doing 100 push-ups everyday.
TOMMY THOMPSON: (unintelligible) and I'm going to Washington, ladies and gentlemen, to represent you.
JOHNSON: If Thompson sounds like a guy with something to prove, it's because he is. Polls suggest there are lots of undecided voters in this race, and you can even find them at Thompson's rally. Greg Gatormson(ph), of Kenosha, says he might vote for Thompson, or might not.
GREG GATORMSON: We kind of know what we get with Tommy. I don't necessarily have a problem with that. I think he would do a good job. But sometimes you need to kind of start fresh with somebody new and some new ideas. He's been around the system a long time and sometimes that's good, sometimes that's not so good.
JOHNSON: As governor, Thompson cut some taxes but government spending also rose. That's an opening on the right for his three opponents. But it's an opening they're all trying to squeeze through at once, producing some confusion of ads on TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Governor Thompson may not fight to repeal ObamaCare, I will.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Just who is Eric Hovde? Eric Hovde spent 24 years in Washington.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Neumann/Thompson, typical politicians running typical false campaigns.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: On taxes, Hovde is like Thompson, only worse.
JOHNSON: The newcomer in the race is Eric Hovde, a hedge funds manager making his first run for office.
ERIC HOVDE: I enjoy by private sector life. I came out of it because we are in a financial crisis.
JOHNSON: Hovde has already spent more than $5 million of his own money on this race. He's attacked Thompson for comments Thompson made in 2006 in favor of an individual mandate for health care. But Hovde is getting hit from all sides: by Thompson for living outside of Wisconsin for 24 years; by Grover Norquist for refusing to sign the Americans for Tax Reform No Tax Pledge; and by a third candidate, former Congressman Mark Neumann.
MARK NEUMANN: The folks in Wisconsin are brighter than what Eric Hovde is trying to lead us to believe here. And once again, we're seeing past your actual commercials into who you actually are.
JOHNSON: That's Neumann at a recent debate where he and Hovde mix it up repeatedly. Neumann lost in his bids for the U.S. Senate in 1998 and for governor in 2010. But he still has the backing of some Tea Party groups and the anti-tax Club for Growth.
A fourth Republican says he's going to remain above the fray, although that could be because he can't afford to compete on TV. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald says his record of pushing Governor Scott Walker's agenda in the legislature speaks for itself.
JEFF FITZGERALD: So if you're looking for a battle-tested conservative, I'm the guy. I'm the Walker conservative in this race.
JOHNSON: Perhaps, but Walker himself has not made an endorsement.
One wild card that's hard to read is the date of the primary itself. This is the first year Wisconsin's primary has been moved from September to August. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee says in a low turnout election, it's tough to say just too and will come out to vote.
MORDECAI LEE: I think in that sense it means that just about anybody can win because it's so unpredictable.
JOHNSON: On the Democratic side there is no such uncertainty. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is unopposed for the nomination to succeed Herb Kohl, the Democrat who has held the seat for 24 years.
For NPR news, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.