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Who Will Succeed Herb Kohl?

Baldwin, Thompson and Neumann among big-name possibilities

Sep. 21, 2011
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Wisconsin seems to be in perpetual campaign mode these days. But one of the standout races to watch is the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl after 24 years in the Senate.

Kohl, one of the most popular elected officials in the state, seemed to fit the moderate although politically divided Wisconsin of recent decades. Kohl was able to work with both Democrats and Republicans and appeal to a wide cross-section of Wisconsin voters.

But that moderate moment has passed, thanks in large part to the 2010 midterm elections that swept hard-right Republicans into power and marginalized moderates in both parties.

Now, in a post-Kohl Wisconsin, the 2012 election season looks wildly unpredictable. Here's the state of the race so far.

Republicans: The Race to the Right

After years of threatening that he'd jump back into Wisconsin politics, former Gov. Tommy Thompson said he is making it official and kicking off a campaign for the U.S. Senate. But does Thompson—who's used to being the top executive, whether it's serving as governor or the secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration—think he'd be happy as one of 100 senators in Washington—and a junior senator, at that?

And, even more critically, do Wisconsin Republicans want him to run? After all, the party has shifted dramatically to the right since Thompson was the top Republican elected official in the state. His brief but headline-making flirtation with a 2010 run for Senate against Russ Feingold was resoundingly panned by party activists, especially the newly powerful tea party crowd.

In contrast to Thompson's era, Gov. Scott Walker-style radical Republicanism that seeks to destroy government institutions—except for the ones that serve business interests and the wealthy—has taken the reins of power.

Bill Kraus, a lifelong Republican and an engineer of Republican Lee Sherman Dreyfus' successful underdog campaign for governor, said the ultraconservative Republicans currently calling the shots were always part of the party but never represented its core.

"We spent a lot of time marginalizing those people," Kraus said. "Now they've gotten loose and are in charge."

And that's why Thompson, who's favored by Kraus, will have a tough time in the Republican primary next September. More right-wing Republicans—such as former Congressman Mark Neumann and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who's said to be eyeing a run for Kohl's seat—will have an easier time appealing to conservative primary voters. However, if Thompson is the only moderate against two extreme right-wing Republicans, he could win the Republican primary with 37% or 38% of the vote.

Thompson's spokesman didn't respond to the Shepherd's request for comment on his campaign, nor did the state Republican Party chair, Brad Courtney.

However, neither Neumann nor Fitzgerald has an easy path to victory in November. Perennial candidate Neumann ran against Walker for the party's nomination for governor in 2010 only to find that the Republican Party took the unusual step of endorsing Walker before the primary so that it could funnel funds and resources to Walker's campaign.

While Neumann has some support among right-wing voters, legislative pitbull Fitzgerald is a favorite among the tea party crowd that also adores Scott Walker—the same factor that will be a hindrance to him if he secures the Republican nomination and makes it to the general election in November 2012.

Democrats: Tammy's In, Alone

Thus far, the only Democrat to make it official is Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Madison, who told the Shepherd that she's giving up her very safe Democratic seat to run for the U.S. Senate because of the "huge disconnect" she sees between the concerns of Wisconsinites and policy-makers in Madison and Washington, D.C.

She's currently traveling the state to introduce herself to voters outside of her district. She's highlighting her work on the Gateway economic development project in Beloit, her "Buy America" efforts to stimulate the economy, and her vote against the Iraq invasion, a view that she says was unpopular at the time but is now shared by the majority of Wisconsinites.

Republicans are already tagging her as one of the most liberal members of Congress, but Baldwin scoffed at the label.

"I'm a fighter," she said.

Baldwin said she's preparing for a primary challenge even though one doesn't seem to be materializing as of yet.

La Crosse Congressman Ron Kind announced last week that he isn't running, nor is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who told the Shepherd he's focusing on his mayoral re-election in the spring. Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk said she wasn't interested, while former Appleton Congressman Steve Kagen told the Shepherd last week that he's still undecided. Other names have popped up, but none of the rumors have taken hold.

Baldwin has assembled a strong campaign team and is able to raise huge sums of money in the state and nationally, which may have scared off the competition among her fellow Democrats.

But her lack of opposition also begs the question: Why do the Democrats have such a small pool of potential statewide candidates? State party chair Mike Tate said he's happy with the Democrats' bench and feels "very good" about up-and-coming candidates.

But, privately, Democrats are grumbling that the party has not cultivated and groomed enough young candidates to keep the party viable in the coming years. Separately, progressive organizations have been recruiting candidates on their own. That's in contrast to the Republican Party, which seems to have identified young, highly ambitious candidates in all corners of the state. Another political watcher countered that the Democrats do have good candidates—including strong, progressive female legislators such as state Rep. Tamara Grigsby, Sen. Jessica King, Rep. Sandy Pasch, Rep. Kelda Roys, Sen. Jennifer Shilling, Rep. Chris Taylor and Sen. Lena Taylor—but that they're not ready for a statewide bid just yet. Give them a few years and they'll be able to raise their profiles.

Recalling Walker

That said, Democrats may have to come up with a second viable statewide candidate next year, thanks to the groundswell of support for recalling Walker. So the potential candidates that are taking a pass on the U.S. Senate seat—Barrett, Falk, Kagen and Kind—may just be holding out for a chance to run against the wildly unpopular governor next year, if Walker is facing a recall.

While just a year ago a recall of a governor was unthinkable, the enthusiasm shown for this summer's recalls of nine state senators indicates that a Walker recall is almost inevitable, even if some Democrats believe that it could be an expensive distraction from the party's primary tasks in 2012—keeping Kohl's seat in Democratic hands and producing an Obama victory in Wisconsin.

But the average Wisconsinite who opposes Walker—and that's the majority of Wisconsin residents, according to multiple polls—may want a recall no matter what.

"I saw nothing coming out of the recall elections [in August] that would indicate that there won't be a Walker recall," said Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Mike McCabe. "You have a whole lot of people who are stirred up and want to see a recall in the worst way. The fact that there were nine recall elections was astonishing, considering that those nine senators were not the primary target. They were not the people who all of these agitated voters were after. They were gunning for Scott Walker."

In addition, the ongoing John Doe investigation of Walker's inner circle—complete with last week's FBI raid of longtime Walker administration employee Cindy Archer—could make a Walker recall inevitable if charges are brought against even one aide. That would place Walker and Republicans on next year's ballot in jeopardy.

What's working in Republicans' favor? The wild cards of timing and voter disenfranchisement.

Activists can begin circulating petitions for a Walker recall in early November so that they can be submitted to the state Government Accountability Board (GAB) in January, a year after Walker's inauguration. From there, the GAB will have to sift through the petitions to ensure that at least 540,000 valid signatures have been collected. Expect legal challenges to delay the process.

There's a slim chance that a Walker recall could be on the spring primary ballot, when there is likely to be a highly contested Republican primary for president. However, it's more likely that a Walker recall would be delayed until later in the year, to be held as a special election, or would be placed on one of the fall ballots. The best bet for Democrats—at this point in time, at least—would seem to be recalling Walker on the November 2012 ballot, when President Barack Obama is up for re-election and will draw huge numbers of voters from traditionally Democratic strongholds. But at this point, there's no way to know if or when a Walker recall election would be scheduled.

Working in Republicans' favor is the new voter ID law, which will go into effect in February's election. If the law survives legal challenges, many voters who traditionally support Democrats will have a more difficult time casting ballots to vote. That, of course, was Republicans' intention all along.

In addition, the new legislative redistricting map drawn by Republicans and approved by Walker will have a huge impact on the state Legislature by protecting Republican districts while narrowing the number of truly competitive seats around the state.

While redistricting won't affect the makeup of the electorate for the statewide races for president or U.S. Senate or a Walker recall, it may affect voter turnout by tamping down voter enthusiasm.


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