Republicans have lined up a deep bench of candidates in most major battleground states in the fight to flip the Senate in 2024. But one of the most closely divided states in the country has been a weak spot for GOP recruitment so far.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin announced over the summer that she would run for re-election, and since then, potential GOP opponents have dropped one by one, opting not to run.
Two little-known GOP candidates have already filed to run, but the GOP is still missing a major candidate in Wisconsin. Republicans in the state and in Washington, D.C., point to two contenders left who are still seriously mulling Senate campaigns: businessman Eric Hovde and businessman Scott Mayer.
It's a completely different picture to most of the rest of the Senate map, with Republicans needing to net two seats (or one seat and the vice presidency) to win control. In Montana, Republicans have recruited a businessman with name recognition in the state. The popular GOP governor and a congressman have already lined up in West Virginia. Ohio Republicans have two self-funders and a statewide elected Republican in their Senate primary. And in Pennsylvania, the party brought back a businessman who nearly won his primary in 2022.
Despite Wisconsin's status as a perennial battleground that's been almost evenly divided in recent elections, things have moved more slowly there. But both Hovde and Mayer have met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, according to a source familiar with the meetings.
And both are prominent members of the Wisconsin business community who would have the ability to, at least partially, self-fund their campaigns.
Mayer is a political newcomer who would be running in his first-ever election. Hovde ran for the Republican Senate nomination in 2012 and narrowly lost to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who went on to lose the general election to Baldwin.
Hovde also flirted with running again in 2018 and considered running for governor in 2022, but he ultimately decided against both races. Hovde told a group gathered by the Jefferson County Republican Party last week, “I am praying hard about it, looking hard at it, working through with my wife and my two daughters. And you may see something.”
As he gears up for another potential run, Republicans are hoping to avoid a contentious primary between two men who are willing to spend their own money to win.
“The people on the Republican side are highly concerned about what’s happening in this country and realize how important this Wisconsin U.S. Senate race is,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who was elected to a third term in 2022, told NBC News.
“I would hope that they would have those conversations and decide amongst themselves. ‘Instead of having a nasty primary, let’s back one of us and move forward,’” Johnson added.
Avoiding a 'bloody primary'
Mayer echoes Johnson’s thinking.
“We really don’t want a bloody primary,” he told NBC News.
“But it’s a free country,” he added.
Multiple people working for Hovde did not reply to messages seeking comment. Last year, after he considered a run for governor, he told WisPolitics that primaries were healthy and set up nominees for better general election campaigns.
"I am not at all one of these people who believes we should be anointing someone with party insiders," Hovde said, adding: "Candidates are made better by rigorous debate on stage, having to be in front of the public and really having to make their argument. That sets us up better for a general election run."
The hope from Republicans this year, though, is that the party will unite early in favor of one candidate and against Baldwin.
"Primaries can be good, but in a situation where you have an incumbent who has a good deal of money and resources, we’ve gone down this road before," one Republican strategist in the state said, referring to Baldwin's re-election in 2018, where she won by over 10 percentage points.
In her third-quarter campaign finance reports, Baldwin reported raising over $3.1 million and ending September with almost $6.9 million on hand.
Many in the Badger State also haven’t forgotten last year’s bruising gubernatorial primary, where businessman Tim Michels and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch spent almost $15 million combined in a primary election ad war. Michels went on to lose to Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, by more than 3 percentage points in November.
In several other Senate battleground states this year, Republicans have already backed one candidate and boxed others out of a primary.
In Montana, businessman Tim Sheehy is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. The day he announced, Sheehy received endorsements from Sen. Steve Daines, Gov. Greg Gianforte and Rep. Ryan Zinke, all Montana Republicans.
And though Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., hasn’t ruled out running against Sheehy, he hasn’t yet launched a campaign.
In Pennsylvania, businessman David McCormick, who narrowly lost a contentious Senate GOP primary in 2022, announced another bid in September, this time to unseat Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. Like Sheehy, when McCormick announced, every Republican member of the state’s congressional delegation endorsed him, signaling that no one else would jump in to challenge him in the primary.
Wisconsin does have a later Senate primary than most other battlegrounds, in August 2024, giving Hovde and Mayer time to make a decision about whether to jump in.
The 'Ron Johnson playbook'
"We don’t need to have anything decided or worked out too quick," Mayer told NBC News, pointing to discussions he's having with his family about mounting a campaign that would put a new kind of spotlight on them.
Johnson told NBC News that he won't endorse in the race, if there is a primary, and he won't encourage or discourage anyone from running.
"[But] it's not an easy decision to make, to run for U.S. Senate anymore," Johnson said.
He added, "One of my pieces of advice [for them] is, the sooner you’re announced, the sooner you start spending money — and the more you’re going to have to raise."
Johnson pointed to his first campaign for Senate, when he only announced he was running in May 2010 and was still able to win the August primary and the general election.
Like Johnson in 2010, both GOP contenders would have the ability to self-fund their campaigns. National Republicans believe Hovde’s ability to make a personal investment in his campaign would immediately make Wisconsin one of the most competitive races in the country.
And Democrats are worried that Republican candidates using the "Ron Johnson playbook" — announcing late and being willing to spend personal wealth — could pose a greater challenge for Baldwin's re-election chances than she's previously faced.
"The last time a Republican candidate unseated a strong Democratic incumbent in the state was Ron Johnson, and it looks like they’re going to try to run his playbook again," one Democratic strategist in the state told NBC News.