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With the election months away, Hovde has Republican US Senate field largely to himself

An endorsement by former President Donald Trump could reduce the chances of a primary challenge from the right

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Senate candidate Eric Hovde shakes hands with a supporter at a rally for former president Donald Trump on Tuesday, April 2, 2024, at Hyatt Regency in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

When former President Donald Trump threw his weight behind U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde earlier this week, he may have helped Wisconsin Republicans avoid some of the interparty divisions that have hurt them in recent statewide races.

Recent statewide campaigns for offices ranging from U.S. Senate to governor to state Supreme Court have had a common thread for Republicans: bruising primaries followed by general election losses.

Trump’s endorsement could inoculate Hovde, who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, from an organized challenge coming from the right, said Mordecai Lee, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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“It sends a signal to the Trump supporters in Wisconsin that they can support (Hovde),” Lee said. “In other words, it’s transferable.”

Baldwin is seeking her third term in the U.S. Senate, and the presumption among political observers nationally is that the race is hers to lose.

She won her past two elections against Republicans who were coming off difficult primaries. In 2012, she defeated former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson by 6 percentage points after Thompson survived a costly four-way primary that included Hovde. In 2018, Baldwin beat former Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir by almost 11 percentage points following Vukmir’s vicious primary campaign against Kevin Nicholson.

As recently as a year ago, roughly a half-dozen Republicans were rumored to be considering running against Baldwin in 2024, but as of now, Hovde mostly has the field to himself.

One possible exception is former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, an outspoken conservative who has kept the door open to a Senate run.

Lee said Trump’s early endorsement of Hovde could narrow the path for Clarke.

“I don’t think that Clark would be in a position to claim the Trump support in Wisconsin now that Trump has endorsed Hovde,” Lee said. “In fact, for all we know, this was a signal from Trump to Clark not to run.”

Trump has played a major factor in more recent primaries, endorsing Tim Michels over former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the GOP primary for governor in 2022. Michels underperformed other Republicans in November and lost to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

An open question left over from that race is whether Trump’s endorsement will help a statewide candidate like Hovde in a Wisconsin general election, when moderate voters often play a swing role, Lee said.

“Michels was endorsed by Trump, won the primary, and then never mentioned the Trump endorsement again,” he said. “It was in his interest to get endorsed by Trump in the primary. And then it was in his interest to not be allied with Trump in the general election.”

Political observers will watch to see how much Hovde leverages the Trump endorsement until he officially clinches the nomination, or whether he treats the next seven months as a general election against Baldwin.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, or DPW, has been hard at work tying Trump and Hovde together, betting, perhaps, that a Trump endorsement carries baggage.

In a press release following Trump’s Green Bay appearance Tuesday, a DPW spokesperson called the two “birds of a feather: two out of touch rich guys running to put themselves first and Wisconsinites last.”