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Republicans on the Attack Against One Another

Negative ads blanket the airwaves before U.S. Senate primary

Jul. 25, 2012
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As state Republicans decide which candidate to select in the race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl, the candidates themselves are trying to woo primary voters by slugging it out with their opponents.

Gone are the days of positive ads promoting a clean-cut candidate driven by good old-fashioned Wisconsin values and armed with a sensible plan to fix Washington, repeal "Obamacare" and shrink the size of government—the typical Republican talking points.

Now, in the dog days of summer, the tone has shifted. The candidates are firing away with negative, personalized attack ads to try to persuade undecided voters not to vote for their opponent, who inevitably is a lying, bailout-loving, socialized-medicine-supporting, crony capitalist.

Expect more of the same attacks until the polls close on Aug. 14, when voters will decide who will become the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. The candidates are state Assembly Leader Jeff Fitzgerald, hedge fund manager Eric Hovde, former Congressman Mark Neumann and former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the candidates likely won't top the record-breaking $80 million spent in the gubernatorial recall. But he said that flooding the airwaves with negative ads is the way to win an election. Unfortunately.

"It's the way of campaigns nowadays," McCabe said. "Almost no one really tries to convince people that they are somebody who people should be enthusiastic about supporting. Almost all of the candidates spend most of their time trying to convince people that their opponents are scoundrels and that they should elect them by default. It's not unique to this Senate race. But clearly that's how this Senate race is going."

Steve Eichenbaum, who developed former Sen. Russ Feingold's innovative campaign strategies, said none of the Republicans' ads has really broken through and made a positive impression. And that break-through quality is especially important in this race, which comes on the heels of a drawn-out recall battle and unprecedented ad spending.

"People tell me that they're sick and tired of the spots already and we're not even in the general election yet," Eichenbaum said. "I think voter fatigue is really high. It certainly doesn't say that the spots are entertaining. Not if fatigue is that high."

So why are the candidates engaging in this ad war? And will it win them votes or merely turn off late-deciding voters who may still be checking out the opposition?

Tommy Thompson: Is He Really the Only Candidate Who Can Win?

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson entered the race as the clear front-runner and seemingly the only Republican who could win the general election. While that may have been true initially, it looks like times have changed.

Thompson's lead certainly isn't secure. It appears that his time in Washington and recent years in corporate boardrooms have affected his standing with state voters. Thompson was once a rock star in Wisconsin, a popular governor responsible for BadgerCare, the state's commitment to funding two-thirds of public education, the privatization of welfare programs, although that decision hasn't played out successfully, and big government-supported projects that kept Republican businessmen busy.

Then Washington called, and as President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services secretary, Thompson oversaw the creation of Medicare Part D—without adequate funding—and then cashed in as a corporate board member who just happens to have a lot of connections in the nation's capital. (Thompson wasn't registered as a lobbyist and denies that he did any lobbying as a partner in the Washington law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.)

In Thompson's absence, the state's Republican Party changed. Out went the moderate Republicans. In came hard-line right-wingers like Gov. Scott Walker, GOP operative Reince Priebus, former Assembly leader and current Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch and state Rep. Robin Vos of Burlington.

So, like GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Thompson is running away from his moderate, bipartisan credentials and vast personal wealth and corporate connections, and emphasizing his welfare-cutting past and promising to repeal health care reform if elected.

In his ads, Thompson has to reintroduce himself to Wisconsin's Republican voters. He's older and a little paunchier, but the Elroy native says he's going to fix Washington like he fixed Wisconsin.

Inexplicably, one of his recent ads shows him riding a Harley through rural Wisconsin, vowing to be the 51st senator to repeal Obamacare. What Thompson fails to mention is that, like most establishment Republicans, he favored the individual mandate, which underpins both Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts and Obama's federal overhaul.

But the genial, small-town tone of his ads has been replaced by a hard-hitting ad attacking Thompson's closest rival in the polls, hedge fund manager Eric Hovde. In the ad, titled "Washington Games," the voice-over narrator accuses Hovde of "gaming the system" and says that when "Hovde wins, taxpayers lose."

Eric Hovde: The Hedge Fund Manager Next Door

That Hovde is the target of a grenade thrown by Thompson is a testament to the power of the newcomer's nonstop advertising. A year ago, nobody in Wisconsin knew who he was. Now, though, the multimillionaire who only recently returned to the state from Washington is a credible contender for the Senate, thanks largely to his ads blanketing the airwaves long before his rivals began campaigning in earnest.

Hovde's initial ads in the race introduced him and established his political brand as an affable, no-nonsense businessman who wants to clean up Washington. In reality, Hovde hasn't lived in Wisconsin in decades, has benefited from corporate tax breaks and the TARP bailout, and is worth up to $240 million, some of which he's willing to pour into the race. Even worse, he's recycling old Republican tropes in his ads, showing that he's just following someone else's campaign playbook.

Now, Hovde is getting attacked on two fronts. Both Thompson's campaign and Neumann and his surrogates, the ultraconservative Club for Growth, are bashing the newcomer.

In response, Hovde is claiming that he's running a wholly positive campaign. Yet that isn't quite true. Hovde has run ads attacking his opponents and freely criticizes them in interviews. Hovde has even gone so far as setting up a faux front group, Washington Association of Spenders Terrified of Eric (WASTE), which bashes Thompson, Neumann and Baldwin, but primarily confuses voters about who, precisely, is the wasteful spender and why Hovde is running this strange, passive-aggressive, alternate-universe campaign.

Hovde is trying to turn his rivals' criticisms into a positive with a new ad in which he dodges mud flung at him by his unseen opponents. But this, too, is just a pale retread of something done before—and more successfully—by Russ Feingold in the 1990s.

Mark Neumann and Jeff Fitzgerald: The Purists

Thompson and Hovde are close in the polls. Both Mark Neumann and Jeff Fitzgerald, though currently lagging behind, are also making their case to voters.

Former congressman turned businessman Mark Neumann is making yet another run for statewide office, after being rejected by his fellow Republicans most recently in 2010, when the state party endorsed Walker and funneled resources into his gubernatorial campaign efforts.

Neumann, currently running a distant third in the polls, is apparently trying to turn the primary into a three-way race in which Thompson and Hovde knock each other out while he surges to a come-from-behind win. The early ads produced by Neumann's campaign don't even mention his Republican rivals—he's fighting Obama and Washington spenders instead. Only recently has he gone negative, accusing Hovde of being liberal.

But his positive spin is supplemented by the deep-pocketed Club for Growth, which isn't shy about assaulting Thompson's record in government and, lately, Hovde's record in the private sector. "On taxes, Hovde's like Thompson—only worse," the newest ad claims.

Ultimately, the campaign ads raise questions that only Wisconsin voters can answer.

Will Neumann's strategy work? Will he win the fiscally conservative, socially regressive right wing of his party, the base that won't succumb to Thompson's and Hovde's charms?

Or will Jeff Fitzgerald, the under-funded, highly ideological Assembly leader who's partly responsible for the toxic politics that have tarnished Madison during the Walker era, somehow catch fire and win Republican voters?

Or will the nonstop ads produced by Thompson, the political insider, and Hovde, an uber-rich hedge fund manager, win the hearts and minds of the Wisconsin Republican Party's tea-party-driven electorate?

The voters will deliver an answer on Aug. 14. 


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