I for one welcome our new Hovde candidate

If I were a leader in the WisGOP facing that map? With a candidate like Trump at the top of the ballot?

I for one welcome our new Hovde candidate
AveryTheComrade, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Friends:

I promised last week that I wouldn't talk about politics all the time. But some recent developments in Wisconsin push me to bring up the subject again. And you'll be getting a double dose of the Dandadad newsletter1 this weekend with a sermon arriving in your inboxes tomorrow. So let's talk about two things: legislative redistricting and Eric Hovde's entry into the US Senate race against Tammy Baldwin.

Legislative redistricting

Gov. Evers did indeed sign new legislative districts into law earlier this week. Take a look just to his left in the video accompanying this article. You'll see Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. I've worked with Rabbi Bonnie closely over the past three years. So that's neat.

More substantively, it's not immediately clear how this will shake out for Democrats. The assumption is that they'll pick up seats this fall, but I at least have not seen any estimates of how many. The consensus seems to be that they'll have at least a shot at taking back the state Assembly. The state Senate seems out of reach this year, unless the Wisconsin Supreme Court orders that all Senators stand for election, rather than rotating as they normally do.

That's unlikely. Nor is it very probable that they'll select one of the other options friendlier to Democrats. Most likely, this is the end of the legal story. Who knows, though? There have been plenty of surprises already. There could be more in store.

The most likely outcome is that Wisconsin will continue to have a divided state government. That's not a bad thing, actually. It would be fun to see the state lurch back to the left like Michigan and Minnesota, sure. But the new situation will still have plenty of upsides. It will force the Legislature to work, instead of swooping in for a few months, issuing a bunch of crap bills, and then scurrying back to Kewaskum. It should require Republicans to work with Democrats, meaning fewer crap bills. And it will put Assembly Speaker in a sticky position, or an even stickier one than he's already in.

Bottom line: I think Wisconsin gets medical marijuana in 2025. Vos either retires or gets recalled, but Act 10 survives for now. On the other hand, 2024 is going to be a crazy election season, so really, who knows? Big win for democracy, though.

Eric Hovde

You may have seen earlier this week that businessman Eric Hovde put his name in the hat for the Senate race against Tammy Baldwin.

Hovde was never Republicans' first choice. That was Green Bay-area US Rep. Mike Gallagher. But Gallagher opted out of the Senate race, and then re-election to his House seat. Tom Tiffany of the 7th Congressional district likewise took a pass on the race.

But Hovde, a putative Madison businessman, will at least be able to self-fund a significant portion of his campaign. That's always an advantage, even in Wisconsin's relatively inexpensive media markets.

Still, there are reasons to think Hovde faces an uphill battle to the Senate:

  • He drew just 31% of the Republican primary vote in his 2012 campaign to unseat Baldwin. To be fair, it was a fractured primary that year, with multiple candidates refusing to drop out even after it was clear they couldn't win. But Hovde's loss came to the sclerotic former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Thompson hadn't run for anything in Wisconsin since 1998, and went on to lose handily to Baldwin in a year with strong Republican tailwinds.
  • There will more than likely be primary competition from Scott Mayer, a businessman from Franklin, or former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke. I wouldn't worry too much about that last one.
  • Hovde's a bazillionare who runs the family real estate development company and two banking companies.
  • Though his company website says he lives in Madison, Hovde lived in Washington, D.C. and California for 24 years, and still owns an estate in California. He also recently transferred another property in the D.C. area to his brother. He didn't answer Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Daniel Bice directly when asked where he spends most of his time, leading Wisconsin Democrats to label him "California Hovde" moments after the press conference launching his campaign.
  • Speaking of that launch, an accompanying video somehow failed to mention Wisconsin at all. His digital launch wasn't much better.

There's more. Dear God, why is there more? But let's cut to the chase to talk about Hovde's next-to-biggest problem, one shared by many challengers. He's basically an unknown candidate running against a well-known, well-defined, and well-liked incumbent. A January 2024 Marquette Law School poll found that 82% of registered voters hadn't heard enough to even form an opinion about him.

America's Problem Child

Self-definition is particularly important because Hovde's biggest challenge is one Donald J. Trump. Like any Republican candidate these days, Hovde faces a dilemma posed by the GOP frontrunner. He can toe the MAGA party line or he can buck it. One way turns off independent voters. The other earns the wrath of Trump and the Republican base.

Being caught in that crossfire is what led to Mike Gallagher resigning from Congress. It's almost certainly why Gallagher chose to skip the race against Baldwin.

My friend John Stoehr expands on what a threat this dynamic is to Republican candidates. As he says, Trump has consolidated the entire GOP apparatus with his campaign and "purified" it by making it about himself.

That means that the elections of downballot candidates will in large part be defined by public opinions about Trump. That's not a trend Trump started — it's been going on for some time — but it's one he's put on steroids.

In short, Trump is determined to make the election a referendum on himself. That will make it difficult for Baldwin's challengers to make their race a referendum on her. 

It will also mean that as voters are reminded of Trump's less-than-stellar qualities, those burdens will be transferred to candidates tied to him, as Hovde or any Republican senatorial candidate will have to be. As John says, citing Claire Potter, that could have long-lasting consequences for the GOP.

There's always a lot of talk about how evenly-divided Wisconsin is. It's true, margins in the last couple of presidential elections here have been razor-thin, and as of right now, 2024 looks to be another tight race.2 But for obvious reasons, Trump is not as strong a candidate as he was in 2016. Meanwhile, Biden brings several advantages to the race: incumbency and a strong economy, among others.

And it may be that the winds are blowing an entirely different direction than they were in 2016.3 he last big statewide election, for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2023, offers some clues to how things might go this year. That race put unabashed liberal Janet Protasiewicz up against the repellant Daniel Kelly. The result was a shellacking, with Protasiewicz winning by 11 percentage points.

Even better, Protasiewicz won four of the state's eight Congressional districts, including two represented by Republicans. I can't help wondering if the 2024 map won't wind up looking a lot like the one from the Supreme Court race at the top of the page, with Democrats taking almost all the population centers and Republicans dominating rural areas.

I am not overly concerned about Eric Hovde's challenge to Tammy Baldwin. In fact, I like Baldwin's odds against him. And win or lose, he'll be just fine.

But if I were a leader in the WisGOP facing that map? With newly-drawn and more competitive legislative districts? With a candidate like Trump at the top of the ballot? Well, I'd be circulating my resume even more than I am already.


1. I have named it thus, it is now canon, do not argue with me.↩︎

2. Don't sweat Trump's lead. It's early, and it's within the margin of error.↩︎

3. It's Wisconsin, when are the winds ever not blowing in a different direction?↩︎