In April 2010, Ron Johnson was a relatively obscure Oshkosh businessman, but seven months later he defeated Russ Feingold and became Wisconsin's junior senator. Will lightning strike twice, with another renegade outsider winning the state's remaining Senate seat in 2012?
Since the outsider in question is Eric Hovde, there's a good chance the answer will be yes. Hovde has the background, message and resources needed to win a statewide race. His campaign has also been highly effective so far and shows a better sense of the political moment than his GOP challengers. Of course a lot will happen between now and November, but at this stage of the game, Eric Hovde looks at least as formidable as Ron Johnson did two years ago.
Two themes propel Hovde's campaign. The first is revulsion with career politicians, and the second is the looming U.S. fiscal crisis. These themes are connected, since Hovde is adamant that federal debt must be controlled immediately or it will permanently reduce America's economic growth, yet our entrenched political class lacks the courage to make hard decisions. It is revealing, as one of his TV ads shows, that the U.S. Senate has not passed a budget in the last three years when federal debt grew by nearly 40%. Hovde's message is tough, but he delivers it with a light touch that prevents it from being dour, while never losing sight of the sense of urgency.
Hovde also brings enormous credibility to these issues, since he founded a successful financial services business that focused on community banking. He also spoke out strongly against the Wall Street bailouts on CNBC and Capitol Hill, believing they were indiscriminate and passed in haste by lawmakers who are often shockingly ignorant of the financial sectors they write laws for. Hovde displays palpable anger when discussing Wall Street malfeasance and its corrupt nexus with Washington. He argues that this problem is getting worse by noting, for example, that the Bush administration jailed former executives from Enron and WorldCom (whose shenanigans occurred almost entirely before Bush took office), while Obama has not even indicted anyone from Wall Street. Hovde can articulate the importance of market capitalism, and the perniciousness of crony capitalism, more effectively than anyone else in the GOP field, and this will appeal widely to mainstream and tea party Republicans as well as many independents.
Other aspects of Hovde's background are notable, since they make it more difficult for him to be demonized as an out-of-touch, wealthy businessman. For example, at the age of 40 he began to give his fortune away to charity, with substantial bequests to medical research and the construction of numerous "Hovde Homes" for street children in Africa, Latin America and - most recently - Madison. He was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991 and has battled the disease while building a successful business and raising a family. Hovde doesn't emphasize this fact, or try to hide it either, but it is an element of his personal story that's likely to generate admiration and undercut any Occupy-style resentment the left may try to gin up.
The combination of substance, style and ample personal funds would clearly make Eric Hovde an attractive general election candidate, but can he prevail in a Republican primary crowded with more familiar names like Thompson, Neumann and Fitzgerald? The obvious answer is that much depends on Tommy Thompson's support, and so far the signs are auspicious. There is considerable suspicion among the GOP rank and file about Thompson's candidacy, particularly since he chose not to run in 2010 against an incumbent but has now thrown his hat in the ring for an open seat. This attitude has only grown during the campaign, where Thompson is a no-show for debates and often "phones in" speeches at the events he does attend. There's a growing sense that Thompson is acting like he's entitled to the job, which would be fatal to his prospects. On the other hand, it would be silly to count Tommy out, since he has 100% name recognition, has been elected statewide four times, and has friends and supporters throughout Wisconsin.
The outcome of the June 5 recall elections will also matter. If Gov. Scott Walker loses, dispirited GOP voters will be far more likely to hunker down and cast a "safe" vote for Thompson to take on Democratic challenger Tammy Baldwin. But in the more likely case where Walker wins, the surge in Republican confidence would favor candidates like Hovde running on a stronger and more forthright fiscal conservatism. Wisconsin's open primary could also favor Hovde, since he's a fresh face with more crossover appeal than his opponents.
Much has changed since the last time Tommy Thompson was elected in 1998, and more changes will come in June. If the decision in primary voters' minds comes down to Thompson vs. Hovde, the choice may depend on whether they feel Thompson is the best they can do in the current environment, or whether he's yesterday's news and they're riding a pro-reform wave that favors principled and more fiscally conservative candidates. Stay tuned.
Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.