Outside Groups Push WI GOP to the Right in U.S. Senate Primary

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Wisconsin's hotly-contested race to select its GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate is another battle between out-of-state Super PACs and Tea Party-associated nonprofits spending millions to convince election-weary voters to select their preferred candidate. The influx of outside spending is fueling a race to the right as candidates compete for the label of "true conservative." Here is a rundown of the groups spending big to influence Wisconsin's GOP primary.

Three Way Race is a Tossup

The three-way primary between former four-term governor Tommy Thompson, former Congressman Mark Neumann, and political neophyte and multi-millionaire Eric Hovde is largely a tossup and, with outside money painting the leading candidates as insufficiently conservative, has mostly been a race to the right as they respond to attack ads. The winner of the Tuesday, August 14 primary will run against Democratic candidate Tammy Baldwin, who has represented Madison in the U.S. House since 1999.

Most polls show Thompson with just a slight lead over Hovde, and Neumann a close third -- although Neumann also has financial backing from Tea Party groups like Club for Growth and Tea Party Express, and endorsements from right-wing favorites like Sens. Rand Paul and Jim DeMint. (State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is also in the race, but runs far behind.) Around 1 in 5 voters remain undecided, making the race a bit of a tossup.

Thompson was popular as governor and came into the race with the greatest name recognition, but his opponents have attacked him for being too moderate, citing, for example, his past support for federal health care reform (which he has since vowed to repeal). Hovde has emerged as an alternative to Thompson despite having just moved back to Wisconsin in 2011 after 24 years in Washington, DC. The wealthy hedge fund manager, who made headlines for saying the press writes too many "sob stories" about people struggling in the recession, has self-funded his campaign. Neumann is a close third and has been making gains in the polls, largely thanks to millions of dollars in support from out-of-state Tea Party groups attacking his opponents for deviating from the right-wing line (and a few hundred thousand from a Democrat-aligned Super PAC attacking Thompson and Hovde).

Interestingly, though deep-pocketed, DC-based national Tea Party organizations have been investing heavily in Neumann, polls from July showed most Wisconsin voters who associate with the Tea Party supporting Thompson and Hovde, rather than the DC-based organizations' preferred candidate. The disparity between the national Tea Party organizations and the folks on the ground contradict claims that the Tea Party is a "grassroots" movement.

Neumann Backed by Tea Party Dollars

Club for Growth's Super PAC is the big spender in the race, dropping $1.6 million on ads attacking both Thompson and Hovde. The anti-tax group was widely credited for Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz' upset victory over David Dewhurst in Texas' GOP primary. Their strategy in both the Texas and Wisconsin races is similar -- spending gobs of money painting their preferred candidate's opponents as moderates. One ad from the group attacks Thompson for pushing "nine different tax hikes" as governor and Hovde for supporting Wisconsin's "tax-raising [Democratic] Governor Jim Doyle," ending with the message that "on taxes, Hovde's like Thompson, only worse." A more recent ad takes a slightly softer tone, saying Thompson "did some good things years ago," but criticizes him for the "nine different tax hikes" and expressing support for federal healthcare reform, and noting Hovde supported a Wall Street bailout and high-speed rail. That ad expressly touts Neumann as "Wisconsin's most conservative Congressman in decades" and "the choice for conservative change."

The new Super PAC for Sen. Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, Senate Conservatives Action, is also supporting Neumann, and like Club for Growth, was active in the Texas Senate race supporting Cruz. They have spent $115,000 on ads telling voters "if you really want to shake up the Senate, the guy to send is Mark Neumann." The Super PAC has not yet reported any of its donors, but the top donor to the traditional Senate Conservatives Fund PAC is Koch Industries.

The Tea Party Express' "Our Country Deserves Better" PAC, which also supported Cruz in Texas, is backing Neumann with at least $81,000 in TV and radio ads and a bus tour that Neumann himself is riding on. As has become the group's pattern (and the pattern of its spinoff, the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama), the Tea Party Express/Our Country Deserves Better has been actively soliciting small-dollar donors to help fund its campaign for Neumann -- but as the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, the group has long been known for spending a lot of its money to benefit its leaders and the consulting firm that started it.

Neumann is also getting indirect support from other groups attacking his rivals.

The Majority PAC, a group that says it aims to "[p]rotect the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate," has spent $372,000 on ads that show street signs in Madison and Milwaukee morphing into "K Street" and "Wall Street" -- with voice-overs criticizing Thompson for "raking in millions on K Street working for a Washington, DC, lobbying firm that represents pharmaceuticals and insurance companies" and implying Hovde will serve the interests of Wall Street. "As a DC fund manager who has invested millions in bailout-funded banks involved in fraudulent loans, he'll be representing just one street," the ad says of Hovde. Because the ad comes from a Democrat-aligned group and is running during the primary, it could be perceived as an acknowledgement that Hovde and Thompson are the most likely to survive the primary and face the Democratic candidate (so they are getting their jabs in early), or it could be an effort to convince GOP voters to support Neumann, the candidate polls show is least likely to win in a statewide election.

This outside support has helped Neumann make gains in the polls since early July, but he still lags behind Hovde and Thompson -- in part, perhaps, because he ran an aggressive campaign in the 2010 gubernatorial primary against Scott Walker, who is now exceedingly popular in Republican circles.

Hovde Bankrolling Own Campaign, Rising in Polls

Political newcomer Hovde is largely self-funding his campaign -- he is responsible for 92 percent of the $5.5 million in his campaign coffers -- and this money is paying off with a gradual rise in the polls tracking a series of ads touting his private-sector experience. He has become a favored target of his opponents and their big-money supporters, not because he has lived outside of Wisconsin for the past 24 years or because he has skipped voting in most elections, but because he has expressed support in the past for higher taxes on wealthy people like him and federal investment in infrastructure like high-speed rail.

As CMD has reported, a group called Americans for Job Security (AJS) has dropped $689,000 on weeks of TV ads attacking Hovde for allegedly "taking stimulus dollars," a charge Hovde calls misleading. AJS spent $9 million supporting Republicans in the 2010 elections and this is their first ad buy of 2012. Though they are a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, they are known to have received at least $4.8 million from a Koch-connected conduit for funding pro-GOP dark money nonprofits. It is not clear whether AJS is supporting Neumann or Thompson (although Hovde has accused them of illegally coordinating with the Thompson campaign).

Hovde is also the only candidate to refuse anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" committing to oppose any type of tax increase, which many have cited as contributing to Washington gridlock and Republican intransigence. 40 of 47 Republicans in the Senate have signed the pledge (although two non-signers are on their way out, Dick Lugar because he was ousted by Tea Party groups in his primary and Olympia Snowe who is retiring because of DC partisanship). 236 of 240 Republicans in the House have also signed the pledge. "Behind the story with Grover Norquist is he's funded by giant corporations that have created loopholes in our tax system," said Hovde on a conservative talk radio show. "We need to lower the rates, but we also have to get rid of the corporate welfare." Norquist and his group Americans for Tax Reform have criticized Hovde with press releases and emails to supporters, but have not put money into ads or mailers.

Hovde polls well with people who associate with the Tea Party, but most Tea Party-affiliated groups have opposed his candidacy (and spent millions attacking him). The one exception is Dick Armey's Freedomworks, which endorsed Hovde in July but has run no ads supporting him. Their contribution is limited to $40,000 spent on yard signs and online ads.

Thompson Pushed to Right

The fact that Wisconsin's popular former governor Tommy Thompson doesn't have a decisive lead is seen by many as indicative of how the party has changed since he was governor, and even since he was Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush. At the start of the primary, his rival campaigns admitted it was "Tommy's race to lose," but the flood of outside money spent on attack ads has helped change that. Even if Thompson gets through the primary on Tuesday, the fact that the biggest name in modern Wisconsin politics has had to disavow his pragmatic views and present himself as a right-wing zealot to respond to attack ads from out-of-state groups is proof of how the growing importance of outside money, post-Citizens United, is helping to reshape politics.

This article has been updated.