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Election analysts forecast tight race for Wisconsin’s Senate seat

Source: U.S. Senate

Election analysts forecast tight race for Wisconsin’s Senate seat

The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both currently have the race listed as “Leans Democratic”

February 20, 2024 11:37 AM CDT

By: Jack Kelly and Tom Kertscher / Wisconsin Watch

The 2024 election season is being catapulted into focus this week with Gov. Tony Evers signing new legislative maps and wealthy Republican businessman Eric Hovde launching a long-anticipated bid for the U.S. Senate against two-term incumbent Tammy Baldwin.

On Monday morning, Evers signed into law the maps that he proposed after the now liberal-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the previous maps. Republicans have fought to retain maps they drew in 2011 and the then-conservative Supreme Court largely maintained in 2022. But they capitulated last week after court-appointed experts said the latest Republican map proposals are politically skewed.

Map analysts predict the Legislature will be more balanced among Republicans and Democrats after more than a decade when Republicans nearly won a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers despite Democrats winning statewide. That means the November election will be an even hotter ticket with more competitive legislative races, a presidential election and an emerging U.S. Senate race.

Hovde, a real estate developer, bank CEO and the first top-tier candidate to challenge Baldwin, plans to announce his campaign in Madison on Tuesday.

Hovde has deep pockets from which he can self-fund his campaign. In 2012, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his assets totaled more than $100 million. He also has the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which spent more than $256 million during the 2022 election cycle supporting GOP candidates, according to an Open Secrets tally.

Hovde previously ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012. He lost the Republican primary to former Gov. Tommy Thompson by 3 percentage points.

Hovde’s ability to pay for his campaign out of pocket, as well as the prospects of another contentious and closely contested presidential election in Wisconsin, could make the race a dog fight, elections experts told Wisconsin Watch.

“You can’t take Wisconsin off of the competitive list because it’s Wisconsin,” said Jessica Taylor, an elections analyst who tracks U.S. Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

Still, both Taylor and J. Miles Coleman, an election analyst for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said unseating Baldwin would be a tough task.

The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both currently have the race listed as “Leans Democratic,” and neither plans to change that rating even with Hovde’s announcement, Taylor and Coleman told Wisconsin Watch in separate interviews.

Baldwin herself is a capable fundraiser. She finished 2023 with $8 million in her campaign account, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission. She also won big in her previous two Senate races. In 2012, Baldwin defeated Thompson — who had been elected governor four times — by 5.6 points. In 2018, she defeated Leah Vukmir, a state senator at the time, by almost 11 points.

She’s also already well known with opinions about her mostly formed. A Marquette Law School Poll released earlier this month found 42% of registered voters had a favorable view of Baldwin and 45% had an unfavorable view, while 13% said they haven’t heard enough to form an opinion.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., speaks during President Joe Biden’s visit to Wisconsin on Aug. 15, 2023, at a factory in Milwaukee. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

Hovde remains overwhelmingly unknown to registered voters: 82% said they hadn’t heard enough to form an opinion of him. Among those who could, 7% viewed him favorably and 9% viewed him unfavorably.

If he wants to compete, Hovde will have to dramatically increase his name recognition among voters, something his personal wealth could help him fund in the early stages of his campaign, Taylor and Coleman said.

“He comes with seed money,” Taylor said. “Which does give you, at least initially, (an opportunity) to run some kind of (advertising) blitz and raise your name ID. That’s really the only way to do it, is through television and widespread spending on media.”

For months, Democrats have rolled out initial versions of their attacks against Hovde, referring to him as a Republican from Laguna Beach, a reference to a multimillion-dollar home he owns in California. Democrats will also likely attack him for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and abortion.

“We look forward to comparing Eric Hovde, a man who was named one of Orange County’s most influential people three years in a row, to Tammy Baldwin, a public servant with a proven track record of standing up to the wealthy and well connected on behalf of middle-class Wisconsin families,” Baldwin spokesperson Andrew Mamo said.

Republicans are already tying Baldwin to President Joe Biden, whose job performance 58% of registered Wisconsin voters disapprove of, according to the Marquette poll.

“Tammy Baldwin is a 95% vote with Joe Biden in a state where Joe Biden is not very popular right now with independent voters — or anyone else for that matter,” Republican Party of Wisconsin chair Brian Schimming told reporters on Friday. “So Tammy Baldwin is in trouble.”

Baldwin voted with the president 99% of the time in 2023, according to data compiled by 538.

Hovde’s challenge to Baldwin could be complicated if Scott Mayer, another wealthy Republican businessman, enters the race, Taylor said, creating a potentially messy primary that won’t be settled until three months before Election Day.

“The more money people are spending fighting each other than fighting Baldwin, I think helps Baldwin,” she said.

“Wisconsin is the ultimate swing state,” Taylor added. “And I absolutely think it’s going to have a marquee Senate race along with being a decisive state in the Electoral College.”

What we’re watching this week

Tuesday

🗳️ The 2024 election cycle kicks off with the spring primary. Any competitive local races with more than two candidates vying for a seat will be whittled down to two ahead of the April 2 spring election and presidential preference primary. Check here for any contests in your area.

🖊️ The Assembly will vote during a 1 p.m. floor session on a constitutional amendment that would prevent the governor from using his partial veto pen during the state’s budget process to create a tax or fee increase. Watch on Wisconsin Eye.

📚 The Assembly will also vote on GOP-backed legislation that would require school boards to make textbooks, curricula and learning materials available for inspection within 14 days by any resident of the school district who files a request to review them.

Wednesday

👂 The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety will hold a public hearing at 10 a.m. in Capitol Room 411S on a bipartisan package of bills aimed at combating human trafficking in Wisconsin. Watch on Wisconsin Eye.

Thursday

🏗️ The Assembly will vote during a 10 a.m. floor session on a series of building projects on UW System campuses — including the construction of a new engineering building on UW-Madison’s campus. Watch on Wisconsin Eye.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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