Eric Hovde head shot file photo

Eric Hovde

Courtesy of Hovde campaign

Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate will debate in Madison June 19, and it could be a critical moment for the campaign of Eric Hovde.

Hovde’s the local boy in this race, a Madisonian with roots that run deep on the east side — where my mom used to edit his dad when they both worked on the East High School newspaper.

But Hovde’s not running as an old-school Madison moderate of the Betty Smith or even the Scott Klug school.

Hovde’s running to the right. And the wealthy contender’s campaign is taking no prisoners in the process.

To a greater extent than any of the other major candidates in what has become an intense GOP contest, Hovde benefited from the gubernatorial recall fight, which was the primary focus of Republicans for the first five months of the year.

The recall contest sucked up all the political oxygen during a period when the Senate primary would otherwise have been the main focus of Republicans. That’s made it hard for the four leading contenders — former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former Congressman Mark Neumann, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and Hovde — but Hovde turned the circumstance to his advantage.

He made the smart move of buying ads that supported Gov. Scott Walker. And he made the even smarter move of using the ads to rip his most prominent rival: Thompson.

“The decisions Governor Walker had to make to put Wisconsin on sound financial footing were not easy, but they were right,” Hovde claimed. “Years of out-of-control spending and shortsighted policies by both parties — state government spending grew by 81 percent in the 1990s and 60 percent in the 2000s — left Wisconsin on the brink of an economic collapse.”

In the 2000s, for the most part, the governor was Democrat Jim Doyle. Through the entirety of the 1990s, however, Republican Thompson was in charge.

There may have been some hyperbole in Hovde’s ad. But these are hyperbolic times.

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Labeling Thompson as a bigger spender than Doyle — and suggesting that Thompson’s policies were among those that “left Wisconsin on the brink of economic collapse” — did two things that are difficult in a crowded contest.

Hovde defined differences between the candidates, which he will no doubt try to sharpen in the June 19 debate. The event will start at 6:15 p.m. at Monona Terrace and is being sponsored by the Dane County Young Republicans.

And Hovde defined himself as a renegade contender who is willing to shake things up — even in his own party.

The GOP race is still a bit ill-defined at this point. Thompson and Neumann started out as the front-runners. But now that the race has moved out of the shadow of the recall, it will evolve quickly — the primary is barely two months away. And Hovde has positioned himself well to come up on the outside.

By leaping into the recall race in a savvy and slashing manner, he may have scored a few points for Walker. But he scored a lot more for himself. 

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com