A Brief History of Wisconsin US Senate Primary Challengers

Mary Jo Walters will attempt to achieve what no primary challenger has accomplished against a sitting Democratic Wisconsin U.S. Senator: win even 15 percent of the primary vote

After Donald Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin in 2016, Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin’s name was cemented as a (near) top-tier GOP target in 2018.

Republican State Senator and Assistant Majority Leader Leah Vukmir formally entered the race earlier this month joining Marine veteran and businessman Kevin Nicholson and little-known, perennial candidate John Schiess, with wealthy businessman and 2012 candidate Eric Hovde waiting in the wings for a potential bid.

Baldwin, who won her seat against former four-term Governor Tommy Thompson by 5.5 points in 2012 with Barack Obama carrying the state by 6.9 points at the top of the ticket, will at least have the formality of running a primary campaign this cycle – picking up a primary opponent late this summer from Mary Jo Walters.

Walters, a Madison resident, came surprisingly close to winning her party’s 2014 lieutenant gubernatorial nomination – winning 44.5 percent against State Senator John Lehman.

That race, however, did not involve an incumbent and Baldwin is assuredly looking ahead to her general election campaign.

In a campaign video, Walters stated she is running against Baldwin out of principle:

“I’m running for a U.S. Senate seat because I have to. I actually have to. Someone has to. I think every single elected official should have someone running against them. It actually makes them a better candidate.”

Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Senators have never had to face a bona fide primary opponent over the decades – easily winning their party’s nomination all 15 times by no less than 70 points.

For starters, nine of these 15 Democratic incumbents did not face a single primary opponent: F. Ryan Duffy in 1938, Gaylord Nelson in 1968, 1974, and 1980, William Proxmire in 1970 and 1976, and Russ Feingold in 1998, 2004, and 2010.

In the six cycles in which a Democratic U.S. Senator did draw a challenger, none captured even 15 percent of the vote:

  • 1958 (versus William Proxmire): Harry Halloway (8.1 percent) and Arthur McGurn (6.2 percent)
  • 1964 (Proxmire): Kenneth Klinkert (6.3 percent)
  • 1982 (Proxmire): Marcel Dandeneau (13.9 percent)
  • 1994 (Herb Kohl): Edmond Hou-Seye (10.3 percent)
  • 2000 (Kohl): Jim Sigl (10.1 percent)
  • 2006 (Kohl): Ben Masel (14.4 percent)

When factoring in Republican incumbents, 10 of the last 15 Wisconsin U.S. Senators have not faced a primary challenger dating back over the last half-century.

The strongest showing during this span came during Bob Kasten’s run for a third term when Roger Faulkner won 19.5 percent in the two-candidate primary.

However, during the first 50 years of primary elections in Wisconsin there was frequently fierce competition for the Republican Party nomination – even when an incumbent was on the ballot – due to the deep intraparty fraction between the stalwarts and La Follette-led progressives.

As a result, three Republican U.S. Senators were defeated in the primaries:

  • 1926: Governor John Blaine beat Irvine Lenroot by 5.4 points
  • 1932: John Chapple eked out a 1.6-pont win over Blaine
  • 1946: Wisconsin circuit court Judge Joe McCarthy edged Republican-turned-Progressive-turned-Republican Robert La Follette, Jr. by 1.3 points

Several other GOP challengers received at least a third of the primary vote such as Malcolm Jeffris in 1916 (winning 40.0 percent against Fighting Bob La Follette), James Thompson in 1920 (40.9 percent against Lenroot), George Mead in 1928 (33.3 percent against Robert La Follette, Jr.), and former Congressman Glenn Davis in 1956 (46.7 percent against Alexander Wiley).

Senator Ron Johnson ran unopposed in the GOP primary in 2016.

Although Walters has carved out liberal policy positions that are similar to the incumbent, Baldwin remains extremely popular within Democratic circles and should capture at least 90 percent of the primary vote next year.

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1 Comment on "A Brief History of Wisconsin US Senate Primary Challengers"

  1. 1. If Mary Jo Walters is aligned with the so-called Bernie wing of the state party, her intraparty challenge to Baldwin may turn out to be more of a menace to the first-termer’s re-election chances than by the GOP nominee, whose chances seem to be exaggerated by the flukish win of “45” (who arguably owe a note of thanks to both Sanders and Jill Stein for prevailing in the state that put him over the 270 threshold).
    2. Baldwin’s ’12 opponent also served as secretary of H & H S, one of the five or six largest federal departments in terms of personnel. Prominence aside, it is the most recent public office that Thompson has held (mild surprise at the omission).
    3. 1946: La Follette the younger should have been mindful of the then-ongoing friction (or “fraction”) between the Taft-friendly conservatives and the La Follette-led progressives. But then, had he successfully fended off the McCarthy opposition, a different group of senators would likely have held this seat since.

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