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Republican Eric Hovde is facing off against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who won by about 11 points last election. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP

Eric Hovde Is Following Ron Johnson’s Playbook in Wisconsin

Johnson won against a popular incumbent by framing himself as an outsider. Hovde hopes the same will work for him.

Eric Hovde is following a playbook that feels rather familiar in his campaign to unseat Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Hovde announced his candidacy late in the game, toward the end of February. Fourteen years ago, Sen. Ron Johnson entered his first Senate race just six months before ballots were cast that November.

Hovde, who heads a bank and has other ventures in property and investment, has been hammering in his business background. His advertising includes educational videos on finance, and he pledged to donate his Senate salary thanks to his sizable personal wealth.

Johnson’s 2010 campaign highlighted his business background in manufacturing and accountancy. The senator also provided millions of dollars in self-funding. Hovde suggested he would put up to $20 million of his own cash into his race this year.

Johnson’s staying power in Wisconsin has irked Democrats for cycles; they tried to highlight the Republican senator’s anti-abortion views, conspiratorial anti-vaccine rhetoric and the self-described “couple seconds” he spent trying to overturn the 2020 election results, all to no avail in the last midterm election. The possibility of another Republican replicating Johnson’s effort is a threatening prospect for Democrats who have enjoyed some statewide power in recent years.

“It’s certainly a good model to follow after Ron Johnson’s been successful three times in a row,” said Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany. “It might be worth emulating.”

In 2010, Johnson was up against three-term Sen. Russ Feingold, who had won by about 11 points in his previous election. In 2018, Baldwin won by about 11 points.

Baldwin has had unique success with Republican-leaning voters. Meanwhile, Hovde could get a boost from former President Donald Trump, who’s endorsed him.

But Democrats say they’re not worried about the seat going to a Republican, particularly when Johnson held onto his seat in 2022 by only about 1 point.

“Democrats are smart. If you touch a fire once and it burns your finger, you usually don’t keep touching fire. So we understand, ‘Yeah, that play worked at that time,’” Rep. Mark Pocan said. “I’m just not seeing a campaign that’s convincing me they’re doing a uniquely interesting strategy.”

A state Democratic strategist said the most notable difference was that when Johnson ran, “literally nobody knew who he was.” That’s not the case for Hovde, who lost the Republican Senate primary in Wisconsin in 2012, weighed another run in 2018 and declined to run for governor in 2022 because he was considering a 2024 Senate attempt.

“When you’re Ron Johnson, and you’re coming out of nowhere, and nobody knows anything about you, you can define yourself, and there’s really no pushback,” a Democratic operative said. Hovde’s prior work “makes it much harder to try to cover up what he really thinks when the tide changes.”

Democrats highlighted Hovde’s anti-abortion stances and support for cutting Social Security benefits before he even officially launched his campaign. Since then, he’s faced news stories about prior comments critical of single mothers, people with obesity, farmers, young people and the alcohol industry.

The Democratic strategist said another key difference lies in personality. Johnson’s “vibe is like your uncle who watches too much Fox,” making him more relatable to voters.

“I think [Hovde’s] need to explain the fact that he’s a smart, economic guy to you bleeds over into everything he talks about, into his ads, into what he says,” the strategist said. “I don’t think most people have a guy who owns a $3 billion bank in their life … Hovde tries to sound like he’s smarter than you, and I just don’t think that works.”

Hovde’s also facing carpetbagger allegations. Democrats have highlighted Hovde’s multimillion-dollar home in Laguna Beach, California, 24-year prior residence in Washington, D.C., and California-based banking business

“Unlike Ron Johnson, Hovde only moves to Wisconsin when he wants to run for Senate,” a second strategist said.

The Hovde campaign did not comment for this story.

Republicans, broadly, have gotten in line behind Hovde. All of the state’s Republican House delegation have endorsed him, besides departing Rep. Mike Gallagher.

Many of them played up Hovde’s business experience. “It’s a real problem that so very few bureaucrats, members of Congress and their staff have any experience in it, which means limited knowledge of and maybe even worse, very little sympathy for the private sector,” Johnson said.

Rep. Scott Fitzgerald argued Hovde’s prior run will help him. “I think he certainly gained some knowledge from that run, I’m sure,” he said.

Tiffany said Democrats are at risk of underestimating Hovde’s reach.

“I think the other similarity is that I’m not sure Russ Feingold understood how vulnerable he was in 2010, just because of what had happened the first two years of the Obama presidency,” he said. “President Biden is very much an anchor right now on Democrats.”

The Republican strategy is to link Baldwin to Biden. Hovde’s campaign launched a website with a header image that says, “Baldwin & Biden: Bad for Wisconsin.” The corresponding ad calls them both “career politicians” and highlights Baldwin’s frequent voting alignment with Biden’s agenda.

That language is familiar. In a 2010 ad, Johnson said he was “not a politician. I’m an accountant and a manufacturer.”

Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.