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GOP Churns Up The Dairy State

3 Candidates Seeking to Challenge Feingold

While the majority of Wisconsinites obsess over the fortunes of their beloved Green Bay Packers this time of year, the state’s stock is quietly on the rise in the post-Labor Day assessment of competitive races likely to comprise the 2004 Senate battleground.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D), re-elected by a narrow 51 percent to 48 percent margin in 1998, began the cycle as a marked target for the GOP. But after Republicans’ top two prospective challengers — Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, a former governor, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — passed on the race earlier this year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s hopes for defeating the two-term Senator diminished.

Still, Republican strategists increasingly warn against writing Wisconsin, a key presidential battleground state, off entirely when it comes to next year’s effort to cement their hold on the Senate majority. Unlike races in Arkansas, Nevada and North Dakota, where top candidates were also heavily recruited but decided not to run, Wisconsin still remains on the periphery of the party’s competitive tier.

“We believe this has the potential to be a competitive race,” said NRSC spokesman Dan Allen. “It will come into sharper focus next year after the primary wraps up.”

Three Republicans are vying for the right to face Feingold, who defeated a GOP incumbent in 1992. Millionaires and political neophytes Tim Michels and Russ Darrow as well as state Sen. Bob Welch will compete in the Sept. 14, 2004, primary, a race that has no clear frontrunner one year out.

The three GOP hopefuls appeared together last weekend at the Wisconsin Leadership Conference, a golden opportunity for face time with party activists and elected officials from around the state.

Darrow, who operates 19 car dealerships throughout the state, is the latest addition to the field, officially announcing his candidacy last week. He owns dealerships from south-central Wisconsin to Milwaukee to Green Bay, making him the largest such business owner in the state. He is also a close ally of both former Sen. Bob Kasten (R), who lost the 1992 race to Feingold, and former Gov. Scott McCallum (R), who was defeated last November.

While Darrow enjoys high name identification for a political novice, he also has some baggage as well. Darrow is a past contributor to Feingold — he gave as recently as April of this year — and he has also hosted a fundraiser for the Senator in the past. Darrow has said that his contributions were more of a business transaction than a show of personal support for Feingold.

But to draw distinction between himself and the incumbent he once supported, Darrow is making use of the fact that the two men share the same first name. The slogan emblazoned on the back of his campaign baseball caps is “The Right Russ.”

While both Darrow and Michels have the same self-funding ability, the former’s life experiences are what some Republicans believe may give him a leg up when it comes to going toe to toe with Feingold in the general election.

One GOP strategist said “Michels has the potential to draw the sharpest contrast” with Feingold, specifically noting his military background and history creating jobs as a small businessman.

Michels is currently vice president of the Michels Corp., a Dodge County-based utility contractor. A former Army Ranger, he was once the commander of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his only run for office, he lost a state Senate race in 1998, spending $80,000 in personal funds and receiving 30 percent of the vote in the GOP primary against an incumbent.

Still, his efforts so far have impressed party insiders, and he raised $200,000 in 15 days. He has hired R.J. Johnson, who managed then-Rep. Mark Neumann’s (R-Wis.) hard-fought 1998 race against Feingold, who had $1.9 million on hand at the end of June.

Welch, meanwhile, is closer to attaining actual frontrunner status and this week was described as just that by Thompson, the popular former governor and de facto head of Republican politics in the state.

Thompson said Welch is out in front in the primary because he has the necessary campaign organization in place. Welch, currently Senate President Pro Tempore, was elected to the state Senate in 1995 and serves on the influential Joint Finance Committee.

Welch ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 1994, losing to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) 58 percent to 41 percent after being outspent nearly 8-1.

“It’s going to be a tough primary, and I think that’s going to be good for the party,” he recently told the Madison Capital Times.

However, the state’s late primary and the potential for a free-spending bloodbath is what Democrats say will make it harder for the eventual Republican nominee to unify the party.

Democrats also contend that Feingold, a maverick who often bucks the party line on votes, has a higher profile now than the last time he faced voters thanks to his role in reforming the campaign financing system. He and Sen. John McCain (D-Ariz.) were co-sponsors of the bill that eventually became law as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Arguments in the case challenging the new law were heard by the Supreme Court last week.

A complicated provision of the law, known as the millionaires’ amendment, could eventually benefit Feingold if either Michels or Darrow is the eventual nominee. The provision, which raises individual contribution limits for opponents of self-financing candidates, is likely to be triggered regardless in the primary if either man spends his own funds liberally, as expected.

Still, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign said the party will offer Feingold whatever assistance is needed.

“Senator Feingold’s race is certainly not a race that we’re going to take for granted,” Brad Woodhouse said. “But if you look at how much trouble they’ve had in finding a candidate, it’s a clear indication that he’s taking care of his politics but more importantly he’s taking care of his constituents and we feel real good about his prospects in 2004.”

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