Republican Congressman Sean Duffy’s announcement Thursday that he won’t run for the U.S. Senate in 2018 sets up another potentially crowded GOP primary for the seat.
The names of at least five potential candidates have emerged in recent weeks, with four of them — state Sen. Leah Vukmir, state Rep. Dale Kooyenga, Madison businessman Eric Hovde and Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson — telling the Wisconsin State Journal on Thursday they are considering a run.
The fifth, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to an interview request but tweeted praise for Duffy’s leadership. He previously said he would await Duffy’s decision before deciding whether to get in the race.
Republicans see U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, as vulnerable, especially after Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin since 1984.
“The one thing that we learned during the entire presidential election cycle is the regular rules of thumb were thrown out the window,” Vukmir said.
Duffy’s controversial statements
State and national Republicans have already begun targeting Baldwin.
In a statement, Duffy said he’s not running for family reasons.
“After much prayer and deliberation, Rachel and I have decided that this is not the right time for me to run for Senate. We have eight great kids and family always comes first,” Duffy said. “Baldwin will be beat because her radically liberal Madison record and ideas are out of (sync) with Wisconsin. I look forward to helping our Republican nominee defeat her.”
Duffy’s decision comes a week after stirring controversy for saying a shooting at a Canadian mosque by a white extremist was a “one-off” event, that shootings by white extremists are different than those by Muslim extremists and that “good things” came from the killing of nine members of a Charleston, South Carolina, church, namely the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.
Duffy was recently named chairman of the housing and insurance subcommittee of the House Financial Institutions Committee, something he had been positioning himself for, and which could help him raise lots of money over the next several years, said longtime Republican lobbyist Brandon Scholz, a former party official.
It’s possible Duffy is looking ahead to an open Senate seat in 2022 when U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s second term ends, Scholz said. Johnson, an Oshkosh Republican, said during his recent re-election campaign that he wouldn’t run for a third term.
“It’s likely by that time everybody will be looking to him as the candidate,” Scholz said. “Young. Money in the bank. Leader in the state. The Republican Party will wrap its arms around him.”
Duffy’s Seventh Congressional District includes the towns of LaGrange, Lincoln, Scott and Byron and villages of Wyeville and Warrens in Monroe County and the towns of Knapp, Bear Bluff and City Point in Jackson County.
Uncertainty of Trump is a factor
Republicans acknowledged the big unknown in 2018 is what effect Trump’s presidency will have on the midterm elections. The party not in control of the White House tends to do better in midterms, but Wisconsin has been tacking right in recent years.
Baldwin’s 2012 win over Tommy Thompson, the former four-time elected governor, was one of the few bright spots for Democrats since 2010. Scott Jensen, a former Republican Assembly speaker and lobbyist for the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, said Baldwin successfully ran then as a populist appealing to middle-of-the-road voters, but will have a more difficult time running with a more liberal voting record.
“Last time I was warning Republicans that Tammy Baldwin was stronger than they think; now she’s weaker than she knows,” Jensen said. “The ground is shifting underneath her.”
Baldwin starts the race with a significant fundraising advantage. She ended 2016 with a little more than $1 million in the bank.
Her campaign declined comment, deferring to the state party.
“The Republican establishment in Washington is scrambling to avoid a divisive, messy Republican primary in Wisconsin,” said Gillian Drummond, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “No matter what circus emerges, Tammy Baldwin will continue to stand up to the powerful interests in Washington and fight for a Wisconsin economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.”