U.S. Senate Race Begins

 Joe Murray  |    October 05, 2011

By January 2013, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, in office only two years after his successful run against Russ Feingold in 2010, will be Wisconsin’s “senior senator. ” Democratic Senator Herb Kohl decided to retire in 2012 after 24 years
in the U.S. Senate, thus elevating freshman Johnson into the senior position.

With Kohl’s retirement, a number of candidates are considering bids or have already announced they are running in what could become one of the hottest Senate races in the country. Political prognosticator Larry J. Saboto, a political scientist with the University of Virginia Center for Politics who publishes “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” has placed the emerging U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin in the “toss-up” category. Here’s a quick rundown of candidates already in the race or seriously looking at it.



Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, appears to be the clear front-runner on the Democratic side. First elected to Congress in 1998, Baldwin has served her constituents in the House of Representatives for seven two-year terms. Prior to her election to the House, Baldwin served on the Dane County Board and the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Baldwin has the voter-rich Democratic bastion of Dane County as her political base, a political fact her potential opponents are well aware of. In addition, Rep. Baldwin will have very little trouble raising money for her Senate bid if history is any guide. Baldwin, if elected, would be the nation’s first openly lesbian U.S. Senator. This will ensure a healthy fundraising advantage over her potential primary opponents as national money is funneled into her campaign. Baldwin has been endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and EMILY’s List, both national fundraising organizations dedicated to electing pro-choice, pioneer candidates such as Baldwin.

One other Democrat has expressed an interest in running for the Seante: former Congressman Steve Kagen from Appleton. Kagen was first elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2008 but was defeated in 2010. Congressman Ron Kind from LaCrosse had hinted at a run but decided against the race in September.


The Republican side has two well-known candidates, former Governor Tommy Thompson and ex-Congressman Mark Neumann. Thompson served as Wisconsin Governor from January 1987 to January 2001, when he resigned to accept a cabinet position in Washington, D.C. under President George W. Bush. Former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann represented Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District from 1995-1999. Neumann ran for U.S. Senate against Russ Feingold in 1998, losing a close election with Feingold’s votes totaling 890,059 (50.55 percent) to Neumann’s 852,272 (48.40 percent). Neumann jumped back into the political spotlight in 2010 with his decision to run for governor in 2010, forcing a primary election he lost to current Republican Governor Scott Walker. Both Thompson and Neumann are well-known in GOP circles and both candidates will try and establish themselves as the front-runner in the primary. Thompson currently serves on a variety of health care-related boards and commissions. Neumann and his family own and operate a home building company.

Other Republican candidates looking at running for the open U.S. Senate seat are Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald from Horicon and state Sen. Frank Lasee from DePere. Fitzgerald has said he is 99 percent sure he will enter the race and Lasee is strongly considering a bid.

For now, it appears the real primary contest will be on the Republican side. Former Governor Thompson and ex-Rep. Neumann have already exchanged harsh words through their campaign staff. And the conservative Washington-based group Club for Growth criticized Thompson’s potential candidacy by ripping his record on state spending and health care reform in a television ad. Thompson’s team believes Neumann’s allies were behind the attacks. The National Club for Growth has endorsed Neumann for the U.S. Senate.

The other three Republican candidates view Thompson and Neumann as officeholders from the past and hope that voters will be ready to move on to younger, more contemporary choices such as themselves. Fitzgerald and Lasee, in particular, have thanked both Thompson and Neumann for their past service, and framed the election in 2012 as one that could put “today’s” GOP in competition with “yesterday’s” Republican Party.

The decision by former Sen. Russ Feingold not to run for the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Herb Kohl virtually guarantees this race should be competitive all the way to November 2012.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA. 


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