With longtime Democratic incumbent Herb Kohl retiring, both parties are picking their champions for a U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin that will likely be a bellwether battle in the fight for control of the chamber in 2012.
But for state voters, there will be a lot of politicking and a big vote long before the Senate battle is joined.
Liberal Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin is the strong favorite to win her party’s nod for the race, while former four-term GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson is the best-known candidate in the Republican field. But the state’s volatile political scene seems likely to grow even more heated before the race is fully joined.
Petitions are due in January on a recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose strong stance against collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions has made him a hero for fellow Republicans and a top target for Democrats and labor unions. The recall, if successful, could trigger yet another gubernatorial election next spring, in a state just coming off a slate of state Senate recall elections this summer where spending topped an estimated $44 million.
Whether Wisconsin voters will be energized or turned off for the coming political battles is question many in the state are trying to gauge.
“High turnout rates last summer do suggest that voters are engaged rather than turned off,” says University of Wisconsin political science Professor Charles Franklin.
In the Senate battle, Republicans must choose between the clout and national profile of Mr. Thompson, a former Cabinet secretary under President George W. Bush, and new and more conservative blood from his leading rivals, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.
A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey taken late last month found Mr. Thompson ahead with 35 percent of the vote, leading Mr. Neumann and Mr. Fitzgerald with 29 and 21 percent, respectively.
But Mr. Thompson is already taking flak from his right flank, with the influential anti-spending group the Club for Growth running ads this summer slamming his record on fiscal issues.
“Tommy Thompson has been a politician since way back in 1966,” the announcer in one spot says. “But do you know his record? As governor, Thompson supported massive tax and spending increases.”
The early attacks are already scrambling calculations on who has the upper hand in the coming GOP primary.
“The conclusion that PPP reached was that the more engaged, the more knowledge among Republican voters, the less likely you were to support Thompson, and his edge was probably more from his longstanding name-recognition and popularity rather from completely overwhelming strength with a Republican electorate,” Mr. Franklin said.
In the general election, though, Mr. Thompson ranks for now as the strongest GOP hope against Ms. Baldwin. A Rasmussen Reports poll of likely voters released Oct. 28 found Mr. Thompson leading Ms. Baldwin, 49 percent to 42 percent, with 6 percent undecided. In a match-up against Mr. Neumann however, Ms. Baldwin leads by one percentage point, while edging out Mr. Fitzgerald 46 percent to 39 percent.
Ms. Baldwin, a liberal who represents the Madison area and is the only open lesbian in Congress, earned the endorsement earlier this month of former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who himself had been urged to consider the race by many liberals in the state and nationally .
Republicans are eyeing the Wisconsin race as key to flipping the majority in the Senate, where the departure of Mr. Kohl, who announced his retirement last March, was unexpected. The GOP needs a net gain of four seats to take over the chamber and many forecasters say the GOP’s chances are strong.
But state Republicans must first settle on a champion.
“Tommy Thompson is not a sure thing,” Mr. Franklin said, noting however that the election is in its early days and suggesting that Mr. Thompson’s political power and prowess remain formidable in a primary set for April 3.