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Wisconsin's Other Big Ticket Summer Election: The Republican US Senate Primary

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Republicans have won 15 of 28 general election U.S. Senate contests after holding a contested primary and just 1 of 8 when uncontested

tommythompson10.jpgIt seems all political crossroads lead to Wisconsin in 2012.

Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney delivered what ended up being the knock-out blow to Rick Santorum in the GOP Badger State presidential primary.

In less than two months, a rare gubernatorial recall election will be held for Governor Scott Walker, along with Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and four GOP state senators.

The recall vote will be the biggest test to date of the Democratic / progressive push-back against measures introduced by state governments to curtail the powers of public employee unions.

A Democratic victory on June 5th would make Walker the shortest serving elected governor in Wisconsin history who did not die in office (at 520 days) and could flip the balance of power in the state senate for the first Democratic takeover of a legislative chamber since the Republican tsunami of 2010 which obliterated Democratic advantages nationwide.

Somewhat lost in the recall shuffle is a key Republican U.S. Senate primary taking place on August 14th - the winner of which could be a key player in determining the balance of power in the nation's upper legislative chamber next year.

Presuming no candidate exits the race over the next four months, the GOP primary will be a showdown between former four-term Governor Tommy Thompson, former two-term U.S. Representative (and 1998 U.S. Senate nominee) Mark Neumann, and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

Polling has consistently shown Thompson - the most moderate candidate of the three - leading the field, both in the primary as well as when matched up against presumptive Democratic nominee, U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin.

But Thompson has failed to pull down a clean majority in any three-way matchup, with his support hovering in the high 30s - and shy of the collective voter backing behind Neumann and Fitzgerald.

In some respects, the Wisconsin U.S. Senate contest may mirror the GOP presidential race, in which two candidates are splitting the conservative / tea party vote while the establishment candidate escapes with a plurality, and perhaps tepid base support.

Still, Republicans should not be alarmed that they are likely facing a fierce intraparty battle this summer while Baldwin adds funds to her war chest.

In fact, of the eight uncontested Republican U.S. Senate primaries in state history (out of 36 cycles to date), only one has gone on to win the general election: Bob Kasten in 1986.

Kasten was also the only GOP incumbent never to face a primary challenger.

The other seven uncontested candidates all lost their general election contests: John Chappel in 1934, Roland Steinle in 1958, Wilbur Renk in 1964, John Erickson in 1970, Mark Neumann in 1998, and Robert Lorge in 2006.

In short, rallying around a nominee early has not proved to be a recipe for success for the Republicans.

(Although it could be argued these uncontested nominations have been a product of GOPers being gun-shy to get into races in general election cycles unfavorable to Republicans, some of these uncontested nominees came within a few points of victory - e.g. Renk in 1964 and Neumann in 1998).

By contrast, Republicans have won 54 percent of general election Senate races in which multiple candidates squared off in a contested primary (15 of 28 cycles).

The most recent of which occurred in 2010, culminating in the election of Republican Ron Johnson - although Johnson won his primary in a runaway in the three candidate field with 84.7 percent of the vote.

To be sure, Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate primaries have thrown a curve ball or two over the years.

Across the 36 U.S. Senate primaries that have been conducted in the Badger State since 1914, three incumbents have failed in their renomination bids:

· In 1926, two-term incumbent Irvine Lenroot was upset by 5.4 points by John Blaine.

· Six years later, in 1932, Blaine narrowly lost his renomination bid by 1.6 points to John Chappel.

· And perhaps most famously, in 1946, Joseph McCarthy knocked off four-term incumbent Robert La Follette, Jr. by just 1.2 points (5,378 votes out of 440,097 cast). La Follette had won his last two terms under the Progressive Party banner before returning to the GOP earlier that year. McCarthy had lost a primary bid against Senator Alexander Wiley two years prior in 1944.

Overall, 10 of the 36 Republican primary contests have been decided by less than 10 points, although just one since 1958: in 1914 (with Francis McGovern winning by 9.5 points), 1918 (Irvine Lenroot, 1.6 points), 1920 (Irvine Lenroot, 5.4 points), 1926 (John Blaine, 5.4 points), 1932 (John Chappel, 1.6 points), 1938 (Alexander Wiley, 6.5 points), 1946 (Joseph McCarthy, 1.2 points), 1956 (Alexander Wiley, 2.2 points), 1957 (Walter Kohler, 2.7 points), and 1980 (Bob Kasten, 7.8 points).

The largest number of voters ever to turn out for a Republican U.S. Senate primary took place in 1952 when 759,273 Wisconsinites cast their ballots, renominating Joseph McCarthy with 67.9 percent of the vote.

The only other instances in which more than half a million individuals voted in a GOP U.S. Senate primary contest in the Badger State were 1922 (501,722 votes, with Robert La Fallotte winning), 1932 (687,033, John Chappel), and 2010 (595,830, Ron Johnson).

Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate Primary Winners and Margin of Victory, 1914-2010

Year
Winner
Percent
2nd
Percent
MoV
2010
Ron Johnson
84.7
Dave Westlake
10.3
74.4
2006
Robert Lorge
99.7
(unopposed)
0.0
99.7
2004
Tim Michels
42.4
Russ Darrow
30.1
12.3
2000
John Gillespie
68.0
Bill Lorge
20.6
47.4
1998
Mark Neumann
99.7
(unopposed)
0.0
99.7
1994
Robert Welch
47.4
Matthew Gunderson
22.4
25.0
1992
Robert Kasten
80.5
Roger Faulkner
19.5
61.0
1988
Susan Engeleiter
57.0
Stephen King
40.5
16.5
1986
Robert Kasten
100.0
(unopposed)
0.0
100.0
1982
Scott McCallum
67.7
Paul Brewer
32.3
35.4
1980
Robert Kasten
36.8
Terry Kohler
29.0
7.8
1976
Stanley York
100.0
(unopposed)
0.0
100.0
1974
Tom Petri
85.2
James Sigl
14.8
70.4
1970
John Erickson
100.0
(unopposed)
0.0
100.0
1968
Jerris Leonard
50.8
Robert Johnson
28.0
22.8
1964
Wilbur Renk
100.0
(unopposed)
0.0
100.0
1962
Alexander Wiley
80.3
Arlyn Wollenburg
19.7
60.6
1958
Roland Steinle
100.0
(unopposed)
0.0
100.0
1957
Walter Kohler
34.4
Glenn Davis
31.7
2.7
1956
Alexander Wiley
48.9
Glenn Davis
46.7
2.2
1952
Joseph McCarthy
67.9
Leonard Schmitt
28.1
39.8
1950
Alexander Wiley
77.8
Edward Finan
22.2
55.6
1946
Joseph McCarthy
47.2
Robert La Follette Jr.
46.0
1.2
1944
Alexander Wiley
52.7
Joseph McCarthy
27.3
25.4
1940
Fred Clausen
31.2
John Koehler
18.5
12.7
1938
Alexander Wiley
32.9
John Chapple
26.4
6.5
1934
John Chappel
100.0
(unopposed)
0.0
100.0
1932
John Chappel
50.8
John Blaine
49.2
1.6
1928
Robert La Follette, Jr.
66.7
George Mead
33.3
33.4
1926
John Blaine
50.1
Irvine Lenroot
44.7
5.4
1925
Robert La Follette, Jr.
55.9
Roy Wilcox
25.7
30.2
1922
Robert La Follette 
72.2
William Ganfield
27.8
44.4
1920
Irvine Lenroot
46.3
James Thompson
40.9
5.4
1918
Irvine Lenroot
50.8
James Thompson
49.2
1.6
1916
Robert La Follette 
60.0
Malcolm Jeffris
40.0
20.0
1914
Francis McGovern
32.2
Levi Bancroft
22.7
9.5
Table compiled by Smart Politics with data from Wisconsin Blue Books.

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