Baldwin leads Dem senate race

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Although the election is more than a year away, Tammy Baldwin is the current Democratic frontrunner in what is destined to be a fiercely competitive race for retiring Herb Kohl’s U.S. Senate seat.

If Baldwin runs and wins, she would become the first openly gay U.S. senator in the nation’s history.

Baldwin, who represents the Madison area in Congress, was waiting to see whether former Sen. Russ Feingold would seek Kohl’s seat before making her candidacy official. On Aug. 19, Feingold sent an e-mail message to Wisconsin supporters of his political action committee Progressives United announcing that he would not seek Kohl’s seat – nor would he challenge Gov. Scott Walker in a prospective recall election.

“While I may seek elective office again someday, I have decided not to run for public office during 2012,” Feingold said. “This was a difficult decision … and I know that progressives are eager to reverse some of the outrageous policies being pursued by corporate interests at both the state and federal levels. I am also well aware that I have a very strong standing in the polls should I choose to run again for the U.S. Senate or in a recall election for governor. After 28 continuous years as an elected official, however, I have found the past eight months to be an opportunity to look at things from a different perspective.”

Feingold taught this spring at Marquette University Law School and will return full-time in the fall. He’s also working on a book called “While America Sleeps,” to be published in January, about how the nation has lost its way in responding to the attacks on Sept. 11.

“I thank Russ Feingold for his incredible service to this state and look forward to his continued leadership in the progressive community,” Baldwin said in a statement responding to Feingold’s decision not to run. “As I have said since Sen. Herb Kohl announced his plans to retire in May, I am seriously exploring a race for U.S. Senate in 2012. I will have an announcement in the coming weeks.”

Feingold’s announcement came after a recent survey by Public Policy Polling that found Baldwin is the “early favorite” among the other likely Democratic contenders. The poll did not include Feingold.

PPP found that in a three-way Democratic primary race with U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and former U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen, Baldwin leads with 37 percent, Kind places second with 21 percent, and Kagen comes in third with 15 percent. In a two-way race with Kagen, Baldwin leads 48-19.

“If she runs and Feingold doesn’t, she’s going to be pretty difficult to beat in a primary,” PPP concluded.

On the Republican side, the apparent frontrunner is Tommy Thompson.

Thompson, 69, served as governor of Wisconsin for an unprecedented 14 years, but he hasn’t won an election since 1998. He recently named co-chairs of a campaign advisory committee, although he hasn’t officially entered the race.

Thompson’s dalliance with another run for office has become an almost annual event in Wisconsin since he left President George W. Bush’s cabinet, where he served as Health and Human Services secretary, in 2005. But this time he appears to be more serious. In addition to naming co-chairs of a campaign committee, he has hired political consultants and has said publicly that he’s seriously considering a run.

Thompson ran for president in 2007 but dropped out after finishing seventh in the Iowa straw poll. He briefly considered running for governor in 2009 and kept speculation swirling for months about whether he would challenge Feingold last year. Just a day before announcing he wasn’t running, Thompson insisted he still didn’t know what he was going to say.

While Thompson has great name recognition, rumors of his extra-marital affairs are likely to become campaign distractions in the current political environment. He would also have to overcome political history: Kohl’s seat has been in Democratic hands for more than 50 years.

A moderate who worked closely with Democrats, Thompson is also expected to face a challenge in a Republican primary from more conservative members of his party who have risen to power and moved the party far to the right in the years since he left the governor’s office.

Those include: state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald of Horicon, a close ally of Walker and Koch Industries; state Sen. Frank Lasee of DePere, who once sponsored a bill allowing teachers to carry firearms in the classroom; former state Sen. Ted Kanavas of Brookfield; and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann of Nashotah.

Fitzgerald has a “strong interest” in the race but has no timetable for making a decision, said his spokesman John Jagler.

The Wisconsin Senate race will come amid what is shaping up to be a high stakes election year for the state, which is expected to be a key part of President Barack Obama’s roadmap to re-election. He won Wisconsin in 2008 by 14 points, but last year voters handed control of the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature to Republicans in the largest flip of power to conservatives in the country.

In addition to the hot Senate race and presidential contest, Wisconsin Democrats also are promising to force a recall election of Walker in 2012.

All of this comes after voters kicked out two Republican incumbent state senators in recall elections this month. But a 2,000 vote win in one race left the GOP with a one-seat Senate majority.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.