Republicans want Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wis.) seat so badly that the state party made all three major GOP candidates sign a pledge promising to play nice with one another.
“It’s to everyone’s benefit to keep it positive,” says Chris Lato, Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman. “No Republican wants to see something ugly, expensive and drawn out. It’s good not to have a knock-down, drag-out fight,” he said.
But the tactic begs the question: How will these little-known contenders, with few serious policy differences between them, try to get a leg up in the primary and keep themselves viable for a short, tough general election fight with Feingold?
The three candidates, millionaires Russ Darrow and Tim Michels and state Sen. Bob Welch, say they will keep their word all the way through to the late primary, which is not until Sept. 14.
According to a state party announcement, they have agreed “to run issue-oriented campaigns that outline their agendas for the future of Wisconsin, while highlighting the many actions that put liberal Democrat Senator Russ Feingold so far out of step with the views and principles of the vast majority of Wisconsin citizens.”
The pledge does not include late entrant Robert Lorge, who has yet to discuss his intention to run with state party officials, Lato said.
“At the end of the day, all three candidates agree Russ Feingold is poorly serving our great state, and it’s time for him to go,” GOP Chairman Rick Graber said.
Asked if they really can go that long without attacking one another, Welch replied, “I hope the answer is yes.”
Darrow, who owns a well-known auto dealership chain, said he will not sling mud if, for no other reason, because he has his business reputation to uphold.
“There will be nothing from me,” he said.
“The campaign has been positive and we hope that it remains positive,” said Cullen Sheehan, Michels’ campaign manager.
None of that is to say the Republicans won’t try to distinguish themselves.
“[Going] negative is always in the eye of the beholder,” Lato said.
Pointing to someone’s record and jockeying in debates is to be expected, he said. The candidates will have to show there are differences.
Todd Robert Murphy, a Milwaukee-based Republican advertising executive who does political consulting for Republicans and Democrats, said the candidates will have to exploit their differences.
“You can’t just go after Feingold,” he said. “They will have to bifurcate themselves.”
The three leaders hold a lot of the same opinions but there are differences among them. Michels, a construction company executive from Oconomowoc, is perceived as the most moderate, Murphy said. Darrow can come across as a wealthy auto dealer who is running for office out of boredom but has a strong business record to point to, and Welch has “legislative gravitas.”
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) did a good job of painting Welch as a “poster boy for the right” when Welch, then a state Representative, lost to Kohl in the 1994 Senate race, Murphy said.
At least those who follow politics know he isn’t a “wild-eyed zealot” now, but he still has some “image repairing” to do with voters, he said.
Nonetheless, Welch entered the primary considered the favorite since he already had statewide name recognition and his two opponents were essentially political novices.
Michels did run unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1998, while Darrow has never before sought public office.
Lorge was the GOP secretary of state nominee in 2002.
“I’m way ahead in this primary — I have all the endorsements, organization. … I don’t have to reinvent myself,” Welch said.
No primary polls have been published yet, but Darrow’s operatives say they have tested generic profiles and found voters prefer candidates with business experience to those with political experience 2-1.
That would seem to benefit Darrow and Michels over Welch and Feingold, but it is too early to say definitively who, if anyone, has the upper hand.
All three candidates are essentially trying to run general election campaigns now, as the nominee will have only about six weeks between the primary and general election to appeal to all voters.
There’s a chance the party faithful could anoint someone at the state convention in late May to give the nominee a head start, but it is unclear if anyone can build such overwhelming support in time to snag the endorsement.
A candidate needs two-thirds of all state delegates to win the party’s endorsement before the primary.
Presumably Welch would have the best chance, having built a statewide campaign before, but he is not banking on the party coalescing early.
Lato said it might be a good thing that the nominee won’t emerge until Sept. 14.
That gives the three candidates lots of time to hammer away at Feingold and bring his numbers down while the media lavish attention on the primary, he said.
Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the nominee will come out mostly unscathed and with momentum, because the focus will be on Feingold thanks to the pledge.
“It bodes well for us,” he said.
The candidates disagree about what it will take to win the primary.
Money will be key, Darrow says, as will who has the strongest personal message. The most organized candidate with the best message will prevail, says Sheehan, Michels’ spokesman.
“It’s going to be about who’s the candidate I trust and who’s the candidate who can beat Russ Feingold,” Welch said.
At the beginning of the year, Darrow led the money race, having banked $1.1 million, followed by Michels, who showed almost $770,000 cash on hand, and then Welch, who saved $465,000.
Feingold, who has no primary opponent, banked almost $3 million.
While all the candidates and state and national party officials talk about how vulnerable Feingold is — noting his extremely narrow win in 1998 — Murphy says Feingold will be “formidable.”
Feingold was more vulnerable last time when he eked out a 51 percent to 48 percent win over then-Rep. Mark Neumann (R), who outspent him, Murphy said.
“Politics is all about timing, and Russ’ is very good,” he said, adding that President Bush could be a drag on Republican candidates in Wisconsin this year.
“If the election were held today, Bush would lose in Wisconsin,” Murphy said.
Knowing Feingold’s knack for sneaking away with tough wins, some Republicans wanted a heavy hitter — say, former governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson — to take on Feingold.
Thompson was the only real top-tier candidate out there, Murphy said.
“There’s Tommy Thompson and then there’s everyone else,” he said.
That was always wishful thinking, Welch said, noting that Thompson has never shown any desire to run for Senate.
If Republicans are at all disappointed with a fair fight among three candidates who were not hand-picked, no one is saying so.
The idea that the GOP does not have a top tier candidate is just wrong, Allen said.
Wisconsin voters will have three excellent choices in September, he said. “It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.”