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Wisconsin’s open Senate seat a hot topic

List of potential candidates ever-changing to succeed Kohl

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

No rest for the politically weary in Wisconsin.

Just as many voters were getting over a record-setting string of state Senate recall elections with the prospect of another against the governor, the parties are gearing up for what many are predicting will be a hard-fought race for the open U.S. Senate seat left by retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat.

Former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, last week named campaign co-chairmen, a signal that the Health and Human Services secretary in the George W. Bush administration most likely is entering the race.

Meanwhile, former Sen. Russ Feingold, the top Democratic candidate, dashed the hopes of many party faithful last week when he declined to run, citing his enjoyment of public life and university teaching, along with finishing his memoirs.

His exit opens the doors for U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin to enter what political watchers are predicting is certain to be a barn-burner race, nationally and statewide, as ongoing labor disputes have polarized the political landscape and Republicans attack the failures of the Obama administration.

"The open seat is an opportunity for Republicans," says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, which has put the Wisconsin race, for now, in a toss-up category.

"I think you are looking at a primary between Tommy Thompson, who I suspect will get into the race in the next month or so, and Mark Neumann," Ms. Duffy added.

Mr. Neumann, a former U.S. congressman from the state's 1st District, lost a bitter gubernatorial primary bid last year against current Gov. Scott Walker, but he enjoys solid name recognition and the personal wealth to finance a Senate campaign.

A survey from Public Policy Polling found Mr. Thompson vulnerable against Mr. Neumann because of Mr. Thompson's weakness with conservative Republicans.

Mr. Thompson "trailed 54-38 with 'very conservative' voters, but made up for that with a 57-21 advantage among moderates and a 48-33 one with 'somewhat conservative' voters. After the rigor of a primary campaign, his situation will be far worse,"said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling.

"He's made a successful career out of being a moderate Republican, but there may not be a place for that anymore in today's tea party-dominated GOP. I will be very surprised if he snags the nomination."

GOP strategist Cheri Jacobus is more confident about Mr. Thompson's chances. Without Mr. Feingold in the race for Mr. Kohl's seat, "the GOP has a decent shot at a gain and Thompson still has a lot of juice," she said. "He can win it."

She also thinks that the showdown between Mr. Walker and Democrats in the Legislature over a collective-bargaining bill and the divisive recall elections in response will not hurt the GOP come election-time. Despite continuing noise among labor activists in Wisconsin, she calls future recall talk directed at Mr. Walker a bust.

"The state Senate recall effort by the left was largely a failure," Ms. Jacobus said. "It's unlikely there will be a serious recall effort of Walker. His policies seem to be working out well for the state."

For Democrats, Ms. Baldwin, a University of Wisconsin law school graduate who is the first woman from the state elected to Congress and its first openly lesbian Congress member, seems to have a clear primary path for now.

But the Madison native will have to push hard to advance her name and political status statewide, even after serving in Congress since 1999 representing Wisconsin's 2nd District.

"It certainly looks like Baldwin will get in and may not get any real primary challenge," Ms. Duffy said. "Baldwin has a lot of work to do to get known outside her district, which is arguably the most liberal in the state and she has the voting record to match, giving Republicans a lot of fodder for the general election."

In polls against two possible Democratic primary opponents, Ron Kind and Steve Kagen, Ms. Baldwin holds a substantial lead, the Public Policy Polling survey found.

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