Wisconsin Abuzz Over Herb Kohl's Open Senate Seat

Within an hour of Sen. Herb Kohl’s (D.-Wis.) announcement that he would not seek reelection next year, speculation out of the Badger State was rampant on what would happen next.  Would Republicans build on their statewide sweep last year and gain the seat?  Or would Democrats be emboldened by their furor over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s recent clashes with public employee unions and roar back to hold Kohl’s now open seat—the eighth to be relinquished by a sitting U.S. senator in 2012?

In the first polling (online) right after Kohl announced his exit, the Milwaukee Journal showed former three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold (who lost reelection last year), defeating House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan by a margin of 39% to 31%.

“And you’re going to hear a lot more speculation, all right,” said veteran Wisconsin Republican consultant Scott Becher.  “But it’s really meaningless for now.  It depends on the recalls in July.”

Becher was referring to the recall elections in the districts of eight state senators—six of them Republicans, two Democrats—on July 12.   Should Democrats emerge triumphant in what is clearly a referendum on Walker’s controversial pension reform, then they will go into the ’12 Senate race with guns blazing.  A Republican victory in July, however, will fuel GOP momentum in the effort to win the seat Kohl has held with ease since 1988.

Most pundits and political consultants who spoke to HUMAN EVENTS doubt that either Feingold or Ryan will run for the seat.  Ryan has long signaled he is in the House for a while to fight the deficit war, while Feingold, in Scott Becher’s view, “has first dibs on the nomination for governor if they recall Gov. Walker next year.”

After Feingold, the Democrats most mentioned for nomination are arch-liberal Representatives Ron Kind and Tammy Baldwin.

On the Republican side, the list is longer—much longer, a clear sign of the party’s “abundance of wealth” after its sweep of most statewide offices last year, along with a new U.S. House seat, and both houses of the state legislature.

The GOPers mentioned are all considered strong conservatives: Ted Kavanas, former state senator and now head of Angel Investing, former assembly speaker and Walker’s secretary of administration Mike Huebsch, State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, former Rep. (1994-’98) Mark Neumann, who lost bids for the Senate in 1998 and the nomination for governor in 2010, and Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Robin Vos.

In perhaps the most intriguing political development involving siblings since identical twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kacynski were president and premier of Poland a few years ago, brothers Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald are the Republican leaders of the Wisconsin legislature.  Scott is senate majority leader, Jeff is speaker of the Assembly.  Both are now mentioned as contenders for the Senate seat.

Factor in recently elected Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin son, and you know this is going to be a race worth watching.