Wisconsin's U.S. Senate primary is less than a month away, and an upstart hedge-fund manager and tea party favorite is making a move to become the latest Republican political newcomer to earn a seat in the upper chamber.
Eric Hovde has surged in recent polls in the four-way GOP race, drawing closer to longtime frontrunner and former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson ahead of the Aug. 14 primary.
Mr. Hovde, who has never held political office, has gained traction by mostly self-financing a campaign that paints himself as a true conservative who will shake up a D.C. establishment chock-full of career politicians.
In a state where voters have moved right in recent years, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Sen. Ron Johnson, Gov. Scott Walker and others who have ridden a conservative platform and lack of political experience to statewide office.
"In an election that is clearly about the economy, I think people are looking at candidates like Eric who have practical real-world experience and know how to balance a budget," Hovde spokesman Sean Lansing said. "You have a Congress that is full of politicians who have spent a career in government, and what has it gotten us?"
The Republican nominee will take on Rep. Tammy Baldwin, unopposed in the Democratic primary, in what likely will be a tight race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl.
The GOP field also includes former congressman Mark Neumann and state assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.
Mr. Hovde has risen from the back of the GOP pack in the spring to a firm second place.
A poll last week by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed him with a two-point lead over Mr. Thompson, but the Hovde campaign released its own poll days earlier that showed him trailing the former governor by five points.
Another poll this month by Marquette University showed Mr. Thompson with a 12-point lead — substantial but still down from a 20-point lead in June.
The Hovde campaign hopes to make up the deficit in the next month by hammering Mr. Thompson, the Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, as an pout-of-touch, well-connected bureaucrat with a reputation as a moderate.
Mr. Hovde often has played the "real conservative" card and received a recent endorsement from FreedomWorks, a tea party-affiliated PAC.
The Thompson campaign likely will paint Mr. Hovde as a blank slate and a carpetbagger who lived in the District for 24 years before returning to his native Wisconsin last year.
"The issue has got less to do with insider versus outsider and more to do with what you've done and who you are," Thompson spokesman Brian Nemoir said. "And Tommy's record in the state is unparalleled."
Recent trends have shown that when hard-charging newcomers with tea party backing get within striking distance, they typically overtake their well-known opponents.
Mr. Johnson won that way over incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010 in Wisconsin, as Sen. Mike Lee of Utah did in his Republican primary victory over incumbent Sen. Robert F. Bennett that year. This year, Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana was toppled in his primary by tea party candidate Richard Mourdock.
While precedent may be on Mr. Hovde's side, it won't be nearly as easy for him to portray Mr. Thompson — who has not held elected office in 11 years — as complicit with the gridlock in Congress, said Eric Ostermeier, a political analyst at the University of Minnesota.
Other frontrunners "were running against not only an insurgent candidate but had to defend themselves as being part of the problem," Mr. Ostermeier said. "Thompson's a little insulated from that."
There are other factors that could tip the primary in Mr. Thompson's favor, such as lasting positive name recognition from his time as governor and the fact that an open primary could allow moderate Democrats to abandon their party's uncontested primary.
But Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for Cook Political Report, suggested there may be voter fatigue in the state after a string of recall elections, which could depress voter turnout among moderate or apathetic voters — providing a likely advantage for Mr. Hovde.
Nonetheless, she said Mr. Hovde has an uphill battle.
"We're going to have to see, but I don't think that Thompson is in a particularly terrible position," she said.
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