When Herb Kohl announced he would retire from politics, Wisconsin’s Democrats were divided emotionally. On one hand, they were sad to see Kohl leaving the stage and opening up a seat that could potentially turn from blue to red (see Feingold v. Johsnon). But on the other hand, they were hopeful, almost giddy, at the prospect that they could get Russ Feingold back in the Senate after he was tossed in the Conservative tide of 2010.
For months bumper stickers have turned up on vehicles touting “Feingold in 2012,” leaving the office in question open. The U.S. Senate? Sure. The Wisconsin governor’s mansion? That would be cool, too.
But Friday, Feingold made it official that he is not running in 2012. He seems to have settled in nicely at Marquette University law school teaching Current Legal Issues and working on his memoir. So move on Dems, you need to find a new candidate.
The Republicans see Kohl’s seat as a potentially easy win, and there have been trial balloons set aloft to see who will catch the voters’ interest. Rep. Paul Ryan says he has enough to do being the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and with a possible presidential campaign in the works, the Senate is not a priority for him. But Republican names are being tossed in from all over the state, with one, Tommy Thompson, already bringing back the old campaign gang to lay on the pressure.
So who is going to run in 2012? Or more to the point, who has the cash, power and name recognition to become the junior senator from Wisconsin in 2012?
Enter stage left, the Democrats
After Feingold, where do the Democrats turn? Some names that have already started to surface are Rep. Ron Kind (La Crosse), Rep. Tammy Baldwin (Madison), State Rep. Peter Barca (Kenosha) and State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (Middleton).
Rep. Kind lives up to his name. He is a friendly, moderate Democrat who gets along well in Congress and has a picture-perfect family life ready for warm, fuzzy campaign ads. His name is regularly mentioned for higher office – the party hoped he would run for Governor last fall, but he choose to keep his safe seat in a district that is solidly in the party’s pocket.
Kind toys with the idea of moving up, but when it comes down to it, he stays put. I think he likes his little slice of Wisconsin and holding an office for as long as he wants. There’s little to attack him on, except for his support of healthcare reform. But for that, Kind is not liberal enough for the national Democrats in this highly partisan-charged world.
State Rep. Barca has upped his statewide name recognition in the last year by singularly standing up to the conservative leadership and touting a bullhorn while leading the Assembly Minority. It was Barca who tried to stop the Joint Committee of Conference from passing the legislative changes to the bill that eventually reined in collective bargaining, and he filed the lawsuit to stop the bill’s publication.
Barca has Washington experience. He was elected to replace Congressman Les Aspin in 1993, representing Wisconsin’s 1st district. He lost the seat to Mark Neumann in 1995 and went on to head the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Midwest Office until he returned to Madison in 2009. (Barca served in the State Assembly from 1985-93 before heading to Washington.)
He is a pit bull and knows how to play the game. Barca is a master orator and held his caucus together during the protests in Madison. But can he raise the funds necessary to put on a credible primary and general campaign for a statewide federal office? I don’t think so. Maybe he should set his sights on unseating Paul Ryan.
State Sen. Erbenbach is liberal enough – he was among the 14 state senators that went to Illinois to stall Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining changes. He gained some national exposure with his almost nightly interviews on CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets from Chicago during the walkout. He’s charismatic and charming.
But I think Erbenbach wants to be a big fish in a little pool first. In the U.S. Senate he would be the junior senator to Ron Johnson and would account for only one vote out of 100. It’s hard to get much accomplished from that position when there are Senators who have 40 years of seniority.
Instead, Erbenbach may wait for the possible recall election of Gov. Walker and throw his hat in that direction. He was outspoken and the media darling of the opposition to Walker’s reforms, plus it would feed his ego to be the Governor of a state that has become a huge power player in national elections. Or he could run for Tammy Baldwin’s congressional seat…
Baldwin is not just one of the most liberal legislators in Washington, she is the top liberal according to The National Journal and in the top ten according to to theLiberal Action Score. The LAS touts Baldwin’s liberalness with votes against reauthorizing the Patriot Act, for taxpayer-funded year-round pre-school, and voting in favor of limiting President Obama’s war powers.
Baldwin is also an out lesbian. Her candidacy would give the Democrats the opportunity to put an openly gay person in the Senate, a demographic currently not represented in the upper chamber. And Baldwin will have the funding of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, giving her an additional advantage over other candidates in the race.
I give the advantage to Baldwin – a liberal from Madison with the backing of a large university population and the LGBT community. She is exactly what Wisconsin Dems are looking for and the person to bring them out of their Feingold funk.
Enter stage right, the GOP
The GOP has an opportunity to gain another seat in the U.S. Senate with Kohl’s departure and they are going to pour money and personnel into Wisconsin to grab it. And the candidates are they are lining up. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has thrown in the hat, while former Rep. Mark Neuman, former State Sen. Ted Kanavas and State Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (Horicon) are considering bids.
Right off the bat, I see a Kanavas campaign going nowhere. He served in the State Senate from 2001-2011, when he decided to not run for relection. He toyed with running against Feingold last year, but decided against it.
He is a strong supporter of business development, having backed the Broadband Deployment Act, the Angel Investment tax credit and his own Film Wisconsin tax credit bill. Kanvas has solid Republican business credentials, but his name recognition is nil outside of the Waukesha/Milwaukee area. His recent stints as a conservative talker on Newstalk 1130-AM may improve that, but I don’t think it is enough to stage a statewide campaign.
Thompson was first to announce his intention to run, telling WISN-TV that his family would be supportive of a Senate race at this time. He added that Jim Klauser, his former long-time aide, and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen would co-chair the campaign committee.
Thompson is the master politician – a wheeler and dealer. He made school choice and welfare reform the centerpiece of his administration as governor, working with then-President Bill Clinton and Democrats to make them happen. These are touchstones for Republicans and conservatives, and Thompson will always be remembered for shepherding these ideas to fruition.
But Thompson’s wheeler and dealer persona won’t sit well with the national or state Republican Party, which has moved away from the more moderate, concilliatory style of the former governor. Today’s GOP is more strident, more conservative, more focused on winning the arguement than compromise. Thompson is the 1990s; this is 2012 and the Tea Party has a lot of pull, maybe more than Thompson can over come.
Neumann is sending out feelers about a Senate run. When he ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010, he was regularly asked why he wasn’t running for Senate. It made sense. Neumann had served four years as the 1st District Congressman (now held by Ryan) and he could have matched the millions spent by Ron Johnson to secure the nomination.
However, Neumann is problematic for Republicans. During the bitter primary against Walker, Neumann broke the unwritten 11th commandment: talking trash about a fellow Republican. He also displayed a nasty attitude toward the end of the primary, antagonizing supporters and even losing funding from some.
The one thing Neumann has in his favor is lots of personal money to tap for a campaign. Having just witnessed close to $25 million spent on six state senate recall races, imagine the dollars that will be needed to get to Washington. Neumann’s wallet is a plus.
But Thompson’s retro-politics and Neumann’s bridge-burning lead to the conservative darling – State Rep. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has the credentials the right wing of the party wants. He is the Assembly Speaker and led the Walker budget repair bill and 2011-13 budget through the assembly in record time.
That didn’t endear him with the Democratic side of the aisle, which called for Fitzgerald’s removal as Assembly Speaker and a criminal investigation. Both went nowhere.
A member of the Assembly since 2000, Fitzgerald worked his way to leadership by pushing conservative fiscal and social policies. He favored tax credits and incentives to grow business in the state, has a zero increase stand on income and property taxes and fully supported Gov. Walker’s tools and bargaining restrictions. He has voted in favor of the state defense of marriage legislation, opposed emergency contraception and favors repealing the high school mascot restrictions currently in place.
While Fitzgerald doesn’t have deep personal pockets, he has received financial support from state and national financial, insurance and real estate industries, business interests and utility sectors. Plus, with 2012 shaping up to be a pivitol year for control in Washington, you can bet conservative interest groups, such as the Koch Brothers and the Club for Growth will be dumping large sums into a true conservative’s coffers.
In fact, Club for Growth already lobbed the first shot in May, calling Thompson as “big-government, pro-tax Republican,” who supports Pres. Obama’s health care plan. Not exactly an endorsement for the former governor.
So my money is on Fitzgerald. He has the conservative cred, he’s follows the new political game plan and isn’t likely to work for compromise in Washington. Everything Republican primary voters are looking for.
Final Ballot in November 2012: Dem. Tammy Baldwin v. Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald. Who wins? You decide.
Photos from campaign or official state websites. Lead photo courtesy the United States Senate.