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After Thompson, Then What?

State Senator Eyes Feingold Challenge; GOP Likes Black Sheriff

Health and Human Services Secretary — and former Wisconsin Governor — Tommy Thompson is scheduled to be one of two keynote speakers at the Dairy State Republican Party’s convention this weekend (freshman Republican Sen. Norm Coleman from neighboring Minnesota is the other).

But while the suggestion of a political comeback by Thompson quickens the hearts of Republicans in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., who would like him to challenge two-term Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) next year, it is highly unlikely that he will.

“I don’t think anybody believes that’s going to happen,” said one national Republican strategist.

Instead, Wisconsin and national Republicans are turning their attention to a “B” list of four or five other potential candidates. And from that list, state Sen. Robert Welch (R) — the GOP nominee against Sen. Herb Kohl (D) in 1994 — is emerging as the likeliest to enter the 2004 race.

“I think he’s going to be the nominee and I think he has a real good chance against Feingold,” said Todd Robert Murphy, a Milwaukee-based Republican consultant.

Welch, according to sources, has traveled to Washington to meet with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and while he has not begun campaigning outright, he is making sure that state and national Republicans are aware of his interest and availability.

In 1994, as a 36-year-old member of the state House, Welch took 41 percent of the vote against Kohl despite being outspent almost 8-to-1. Wisconsin is a Democratic-leaning state, but 1994 was a Republican year.

“I think if the NRSC had helped him he would have done better,” insisted an official in Milwaukee City Hall who has worked on statewide campaigns.

If Welch winds up as the nominee against Feingold, some Republicans believe he has a decent chance because Feingold is not the electoral powerhouse Kohl is — and isn’t personally wealthy like Kohl.

In 1998, second-term Rep. Mark Neumann (R) finished just 3 points behind Feingold, and Feingold that year benefited from an unusually large Democratic turnout in liberal Dane County, where Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) was making history by becoming the first open lesbian elected to Congress.

What’s more, Murphy said, though he is every bit as conservative as Neumann, Welch is far more personable.

“He’s certainly a conservative, but a much more approachable conservative than Mark Neumann,” Murphy said. “I don’t know anybody on either side of the spectrum who doesn’t like Bob.”

Welch did not return a call to Roll Call, but in Madison he is known as an aggressive and articulate legislator who is a budget expert and anti-tax maven. He comes from the small town of Redgranite in the central part of the state, hardly a populous base to run from. But he is a professional land surveyor who grew up on a Christmas tree farm, and has a young, attractive family.

Seth Boffeli, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said statehouse Democrats regard Welch as a heavyweight and would take him seriously as a challenger to Feingold.

While Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the past four presidential elections, Chris Lato, communications director for the Wisconsin Republican Party, said the GOP nominee for Senate will benefit from President Bush’s presence on the ballot next year.

While Bush’s re-election is the top priority of the state party, “the two really go hand in hand,” he said, “and we plan to send Senator Feingold packing.”

Lato said the party is not worried that it doesn’t have an obvious candidates this late in the cycle, noting that Neumann did not declare his 1998 candidacy until Oct. 2, 1997.

So far, national Republican leaders remain cautiously optimistic about their prospects in Wisconsin, while not committing themselves to any one challenger.

“From our standpoint, we think that this is a state that could be competitive if we have the right candidate,” said NRSC Communications Director Dan Allen. “Senator Feingold is vulnerable. He’s never won by overwhelming margins.”

While Thompson, who won four terms as governor before joining Bush’s Cabinet, and three-term Rep. Paul Ryan (R) are the Republicans’ dream candidates, they are also intrigued by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

Clarke, who is black, was appointed to fill the remaining eight months of the previous sheriff’s term in March 2002, after two-dozen years in the Milwaukee Police Department. Although he was appointed by Republican County Executive Scott Walker, he won a full four-year term last November as a Democrat. But he campaigned for several GOP candidates, including then-Gov. Scott McCallum, at the same time.

“It’s clear he’s a Democrat in name only,” said Boffeli, the state party spokesman.

According to published reports, Clarke has met with White House political guru Karl Rove, although the sheriff insisted that the discussions were about policy, not politics. Several Wisconsin political operatives said Clarke may be too politically inexperienced to run for Senate now, though he is also regarded as a possible candidate for mayor of Milwaukee down the line. City elections are nonpartisan.

In a recent interview with OnMilwaukee.com, an online magazine, Clarke insisted that he was focusing on reorganizing the Sheriff’s Department and not on a political career.

“I feel that I already have the best job there is,” he said.

But Clarke called the chatter about him running for higher office “flattering,” and added, “I relish the opportunity to lead, and regardless of rank, title or office, if another opportunity to lead presented itself, I’d be foolish to not at least consider it.”

Walker, the county executive who appointed Clarke, is also occasionally mentioned as a candidate for Senate. But he is considered to be far more interested in running for governor, either in 2006 or later.

Another name mentioned for Senate is political neophyte David Magnum, president of Magnum Broadcasting, which owns several radio stations in the state. Magnum did not respond to phone messages left last week at his company’s headquarters in Tomah, Wis.

Ryan, meanwhile, seems more interested in waiting until 2006, when Kohl may not run again, before making his move.

As for Thompson, the latest signal that he won’t run in 2004 is the announcement last week that his top aide Bob Wood is taking a job in the private sector, after working for Thompson for nine years in the governor’s office and at HHS.It is hard to imagine Thompson launching a Senate bid without Wood by his side.

But GOP consultant Murphy said he sees one scenario for a Thompson political comeback later: If the Republicans are unable to find a solid challenger to first-term Gov. Jim Doyle (D) in 2006.

“He’d like to take Jim Doyle out,” Murphy said.

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