Politics 2004Week of September 6

Will It Be Welch or the Wealthy in Wisconsin?

With the September 14 Senate primary in Wisconsin fast approaching, Republicans feel increasingly that this fall they can not only pick up Russ Feingold’s Senate seat but also deliver to George W. Bush the Badger State’s 11 electoral votes that narrowly escaped him in 2000. Citing a recent statewide survey showing Bush and John Kerry in a dead heat with 46% of the vote each, pundit Robert Novak concluded “Kerry needs to worry about Wisconsin.”

Given the state’s political climate, GOPers from Madison to Washington, D.C., are steadily growing more upbeat about their chances of upsetting left-winger Feingold, best known as the Democratic co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign “reform” legislation now causing so much aggravation to both parties. The question among Republicans is whether they will give their standard against Feingold (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 10%) to one of their most durable conservatives, State Senate President Robert Welch, or whether they will turn to one of two wealthy but politically unknown businessmen: car dealer Russ Darrow or builder Tim Michels.

Based on the rabidly enthusiastic response to Welch at the state party convention in LaCrosse earlier this summer and the Reaganite legislator’s strong performance in the televised campaign debate last month, signs are growing that Welch–who drew 41% of the vote against Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl a decade ago–will get another crack at the Senate come September 14.

In addition, the campaigns of Darrow and Michels have come to illustrate some of the difficulties that Republicans have with rookie candidates who happen to be “self-funders.” Although both men can indeed underwrite statewide races of their own, both have minimal contact with grass-roots activists and local party officials–who, historically, pack more of a political wallop than do big dollars. The two most conservative Republicans to have last won statewide office–former four-term Gov. (1986-2000) and present Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and former Sen. (1980-86) Bob Kasten–both won their initial primaries over businessmen-opponents who spent heavily from their personal wealth. Like the 44-year-old Welch, who spent 10 years each in the state assembly and then the senate, Thompson and Kasten had been in elective office starting in their late 20s and were familiar fixtures to party workers throughout Wisconsin.

And the candidacies of Darrow and Michels underscore another frequent problem with millionaire GOP businessmen who run for office. They often have made donations to Democrats. Welch hit that hard in the televised encounter, noting that both of his opponents had contributed to Democratic Gov. James Doyle, “who vetoed a popular statewide plan that would freeze property taxes,” and that Darrow had donated to Feingold himself. He had even contributed to Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In Washington this summer for the American Conservative Union banquet featuring President Bush, an upbeat Welch talked to me less about his primary opposition than about how he would take the fight to two-termer Feingold. As he put it, “He opposed the Patriot Act, which was written by Wisconsin’s own [Republican Rep. and House Judiciary Committee Chairman] Jim Sensenbrenner. I support the Patriot Act and it’s working. Feingold supported Bill Clinton’s record-high tax increase in 1993 and opposed George W. Bush’s tax cuts. My record on taxes speaks for itself, notably my chairmanship of the Joint Taxation Committee when we passed a three-year freeze on property taxes.” Welch also has always been in his words, “100% pro-life” and has been endorsed by Wisconsin Right-to-Life.

For years, Robert Welch (no relation to the founder of the John Birch Society) has been a hero to his party’s right-of-center grassroots as the premier mover and shaker in Madison on most major conservative measures. The “tough love” welfare reform on which former Gov. Thompson made his national reputation, for example, was initially known as “Welchfare” after the Redgranite legislator who guided it to passage. Now, GOP voters are about to decide whether or not to reward Bob Welch for his years of toil in the political vineyards–and whether that experience is enough to allow him to wage a spirited challenge to Russ Feingold.

New Faces At the Party

As the Republican National Committee gathered for its convention-time meetings in New York City this week, there were a number of recently elected members. Many of them were familiar faces and names and that they were given the high-profile party posts, several pundits concluded, had a direct impact on future political developments in their respective states.

In Alaska, for example, State Senate Republican Leader Ben Stevens was the new Republican National Committeeman, succeeding retiring RNC member and fellow state legislator Rick Halford. Stevens is the son of Senate President Pro Tem and Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens and, while his colleague Lisa Murkowski may have a difficult time this fall holding onto her father’s former Senate seat, GOPers were signaling that they had no problem with what has long been assumed is the line of succession for their state’s other Senate seat: that Ben will succeed Ted when and if his 81-year-old father decides to leave office. The elder Stevens will next face the voters in ’08.

Similarly, Tennessee Republicans elected stalwart conservative former Rep. (1994-2002) Van Hilleary as their National Committeeman. Hilleary (lifetime ACU rating: 98%), a dashing combat pilot in the Gulf War and prominent Volunteer State businessman, had been considered one of his party’s brightest stars until he lost a heartbreaker of a close race for governor two years ago. Now, his capture of the party post has spawned talk that Hilleary will launch a political comeback–most likely in two years, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) has long said he will retire after two terms.

Two durable conservatives were also recently elected to the RNC: Jim Burnett, a lawyer from Clinton, Ark., (Yes, there really is a town by that name) and head of the National Transportation Safety Board under Ronald Reagan, who succeeded former Rep. (1966-92) John Paul Hammerschmidt as Republican National Committeeman from the Razorback State, and former Lt. Gov. and 1990 U.S. Senate nominee Allen Kolstad of Montana is his state’s new Republican National Committeeman. The 73-year-old Kolstad, state co-chairman of Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president in 1976, succeeds another durable Big Sky Country conservative, former Gov. (1960-66) Tim Babcock.


It’s Mack by a Mite: To no one’s surprise, State Rep. Connie Mack, IV won the all-important Republican primary to succeed retiring Rep. and CIA Director-designate Porter Goss (R.-Fla.). However, the 36-year-old Mack, namesake-son of Florida’s revered former senator, topped the four-candidate field with a plurality of the vote and outdistanced runner-up and fellow State Rep. Carol Green by little more than 3000 votes. Pundits concluded that the weaker-than-expected showing by young Mack, who often described himself as “more conservative than my Dad,” was due to a strong turnout in Green’s home base of Lee County (a recent target for major thrashing by Hurricane Charley), and by news of major donations to her by Goss’s wife Mariel and son Chauncey (although the retiring congressman himself remained neutral in the race). Mack had also been attacked for having relocated from his legislative district in Fort Lauderdale, more than 100 miles across the state. But voters cared little in a state where few office-holders are native sons or daughters.

Voters Kill Bid by Jon-Bonet’s Dad: What might easily be the most-watched primary for a state legislative seat anywhere in the U.S. ended last month with the defeat–albeit narrowly–of John Ramsey, father of much-publicized murder victim Jon-Bonet Ramsey. The 60-year-old Ramsey lost the Republican primary for an open seat in the Michigan House of Representatives by about 500 votes to 28-year-old Bellaire lawyer Kevin Elsenheimer. Charlevoix resident Ramsey and Elsenheimer both styled themselves conservative Republicans, but there was little discussion of issues other than the controversy surrounding Ramsey. In addition, Ramsey may have been hurt by having lived outside the state until last year, although he was born and educated in Charlevoix. In conceding defeat, Ramsey, who is a delegate to the GOP National Convention, made it clear he would remain active in politics.