One of the nastiest primaries in Wisconsin's recent history is winding down, and the polls say it's a horse race. According to a recent survey from Public Policy Polling (PPP), Eric Hovde has a slight edge over Tommy Thompson and Mark Neumann in the Aug. 14 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Hovde is favored by 28% of GOP voters, with Thompson and Neumann each supported by 25%. Jeff Fitzgerald, who effectively suspended his campaign months ago but is still on the ballot, is far behind at 13%.
The most surprising PPP finding is the surge in support for Neumann. The PPP survey in early July showed Hovde favored by more than twice as many voters as Neumann (31% to 15%) and with a two-point lead over Thompson (29%). Now, PPP says "there's a pretty strong argument why any of these three guys could emerge victorious. Hovde has the lead. Neumann has the momentum. And Thompson could still survive" if Hovde and Neumann split the conservatives and Tommy pushes through the middle with just enough moderate and establishment Republicans.
In theory, Thompson could pull it off. He has thousands of supporters who just love the guy, including most of the GOP establishment. You can bet the latest poll has pushed his campaign into overdrive, with Tommy working his Rolodex furiously to call out favors and cajole local party leaders to get his voters to the polls. No other candidate has a retail political network that compares with Thompson's, and these longtime relationships in every corner of the state will push his share of the primary vote above the 25% projected by PPP.
It still won't be enough. This campaign was always going to come down to the Tommy versus the anti-Tommy vote, and the most troubling statistic for Thompson is that 58% of those polled by PPP said they wanted someone more conservative than Tommy as the GOP candidate, while only 29% said he was conservative enough. When two out of three voters say they're looking for something different than Thompson's well-known record of governance, his margin for victory in a three-man race is just too thin.
Could Neumann pull it off? He has a history of coming up short in statewide races, and this one will probably be no exception. One reason is the lingering bad blood over his nasty campaign for governor two years ago. Neumann's momentum is also largely due to the fact that Thompson and Hovde have directed their attacks almost exclusively at each other. Now that Neumann is in contention, his free ride is over, and the other candidates will be firing shots in his direction as well.
Most of the undecided voters are likely to find Hovde a more compelling candidate: smarter, bolder, more likable and more telegenic (which shouldn't matter, but it will, especially as TV ads saturate the airwaves). Neumann's series of electoral losses also makes him more suspect than either Thompson or Hovde as a candidate who can beat Tammy Baldwin in the general election. All these factors suggest that Neumann has probably peaked, and he won't be able to reach enough additional voters to put him over the top.
Unless there's a catastrophic revelation or gaffe, this means Hovde will be victorious next Tuesday. It's worth noting just how remarkable this would be. Unlike Ron Johnson two years ago, Hovde became the frontrunner against three well-known contenders in a crowded primary. His campaign hasn't been flawless; for example, it should have been ready to respond to the fact that Hovde donated $500 to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, the one attack against him that has drawn a little blood. Nevertheless, Hovde would not have risen to the top of the GOP field if his introduction to voters did not deftly balance folksiness with seriousness.
Even more fundamentally, Hovde's campaign fits the political moment better than Thompson's or Neumann's. Since 2010, Republicans across the country have been voting out establishment figures in favor of younger and more energetic fiscal conservatives. It happened in Florida to Charlie Crist, in Utah to Bob Bennett, in Indiana to Richard Lugar and, most recently, to David Dewhurst in Texas. This represents not just a generational change, but a shift toward more ideologically principled officials who are firmly committed to fiscal reform. As Paul Ryan recently said about the bumper crop of Republicans elected in 2010, "They're not here for careers - they're here for causes." It would be difficult to apply this description to Thompson's or even Neumann's Senate candidacy, but not to Hovde's.
Having Tommy Thompson - four time governor, Health and Human Services secretary, ex-presidential candidate and cheerleader for all things Wisconsin - join the ranks of Crist may be a bitter pill for some supporters to swallow, but such are the times we live in. Fearless prediction for this Tuesday's primary results: Hovde 34%, Thompson 31%, Neumann 26% and Fitzgerald 9%. Then it's on to November.
Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.