Losing candidates in the Badger State have failed in 20 of 21 subsequent bids for a U.S. Senate seat

Five months ago Smart Politics posited whether Wisconsin U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin would draw a top-tier Republican challenger in what should be a competitive state for the GOP as it attempts to flip the chamber.

While no well-known candidate has yet to file, Montana U.S. Senator and NRSC Chair Steve Daines is still expecting real estate development company CEO Eric Hovde to file in what would be a second attempt to take on Baldwin.

Hovde has not yet committed to another run at the state’s Class I seat – 12 years after narrowly losing the GOP U.S. Senate nomination to former four-term Governor Tommy Thompson by 3.2 points.

Hovde’s hesitation is understandable – Baldwin is a two-term incumbent and the track record of retread U.S. Senate candidates in the Badger State is very poor.

Across the 40 U.S. Senate elections held in Wisconsin since 1914, losing major party candidates have mounted 21 subsequent campaigns for the office – all but one were unsuccessful.

The lone exception was Waupaca attorney and former 10th Judicial Circuit Judge Joe McCarthy.

McCarthy challenged first-term Republican Senator Alexander Wiley in 1944 but placed a distant second in the GOP primary with 27.3 percent – more than 25 points behind the incumbent.

Two years later, however, the demise of the Progressive Party in Wisconsin prompted four-term Senator Robert La Follette, Jr. to return to the GOP. McCarthy held off La Follette by 1.3-points in the 1946 Republican primary and went on to defeat former one-term U.S. Representative Howard McMurray in the general by nearly two-dozen points.

The remaining 20 retread candidacies did not have such success with only five of these resulting in a major party nomination:

  • Republican-turned-Democrat Francis McGovern: The sitting GOP governor lost the 1914 general election to State Senator Paul Husting. McGovern then placed a distant fourth in the 1925 Republican special primary following the death of Robert La Follette (5.8 percent) and then a close second in the 1934 Democratic primary behind Catholic Knights of Wisconsin state secretary John Callahan of Milwaukee (24.4 percent).
  • Democrat Thomas Kearney: The Racine attorney lost the first Democratic primary in 1914 to State Senator Paul Husting. Kearney won the 1926 Democratic primary without opposition but received only 12.2 percent in the general election in third place behind GOP Governor John Blaine and state Tax Commissioner and Independent Progressive Republican Charles Rosa.
  • Republican James Thompson: The La Crosse attorney (and La Follette progressive) narrowly lost the 1918 special Republican U.S. Senate primary to five-term U.S. Representative Irvine Lenroot by 1.6 points and then the 1920 rematch with Senator Lenroot by 5.4 points.
  • Republican John Chapple: The Ashland newspaper editor denied first term Senator John Blaine his renomination in 1932 but was soundly defeated in the general election by Fond du Lac attorney Francis Ryan Duffy. In 1934, Chapple won the GOP nomination with Senator Robert La Follette, Jr. running as a Progressive, but he finished third in the general election with just 22.8 percent. Chapple was denied his third consecutive Republican U.S. Senate nod in 1938 with Chippewa Falls attorney Alexander Wiley besting him by 6.5 points in a six-candidate field.
  • Democrat William Carroll: The Prairie du Chien State Senator came in fourth place in the 1934 Democratic primary with 14.5 percent and was runner-up to former state Attorney General James Finnegan in 1940 with 28.2 percent.
  • Republican Percy Stearns: The Milwaukee lawyer launched three long-shot U.S. Senate bids receiving just 4.8 percent in 1944, 6.7 percent in 1946, and 1.4 percent in 1952.
  • Democrat Howard McMurray: The University of Wisconsin political science professor was elected to the U.S. House in 1942 and won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in both 1944 and 1946 – losing by 7.8 points and 23.9 points to Senator Alexander Wiley and Joe McCarthy respectively.
  • Republican Edward Finan: The Bristol boilermaker and farmer took on Senator Wiley in the 1950 GOP primary and lost by more than 50 points with 22.2 percent. In 1952, Finan ran again and placed last in a six-candidate field with 0.5 percent.
  • Democrat Thomas Fairchild: The state Attorney General won the Democratic nomination in 1950 and 1952 but lost to Senators Wiley and McCarthy by 7.2 and 8.7 points respectively.
  • Republican Glenn Davis: The five-term U.S. Representative from Waukesha narrowly lost the 1956 primary to Senator Wiley by 2.2 points as well as the 1957 special primary to former three-term Governor Walter Kohler by 2.7 points after the death of Senator McCarthy.
  • Republican-turned-Democrat James Sigl: The Milwaukeean was a political newcomer and decorated World War II U.S. Air Force veteran who worked in the planning department of American Motors Corporation. Sigl won just 14.2 percent in the 1974 primary as a Republican against State Senator Tom Petri and 10.1 percent as a Democrat in the 2000 primary against Senator Herb Kohl.
  • Democrat Ed Garvey: The former deputy state Attorney General lost the 1986 general election to Senator Robert Kasten and finished a distant third with 10.4 percent in the 1988 Democratic primary won by businessman Herb Kohl.
  • Democrat Edmond Hou-Seye: The Sheybogan gasoline station owner won 0.5 percent as the 1970 American nominee for U.S. Senate and then finished last in the 1988 (1.0 percent), 1992 (1.0 percent), and 1994 (10.3 percent) Democratic primaries.
  • Republican Robert Welch: Despite the national tailwinds of the Republican Revolution, the Redgranite State Assemblyman lost the 1994 general election to Senator Kohl by 17.6 points and in 2004 placed third in the GOP primary with 23.1 percent.
  • Republican Mark Neumann: After eking out three wins to the U.S. House, Neumann rolled the dice on a statewide race, but lost by 2.2 points to Senator Russ Feingold. In 2012, Neumann won 22.8 percent in the GOP primary but that was only good for third place.
  • Republican Robert Lorge: The Bear Creek attorney and 2002 GOP nominee for Secretary of State was a distant fourth in the 2004 Republican primary with 4.4 percent but won the 2006 nomination without opposition. Senator Kohl defeated Lorge by 37.8 points in the general election.

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a more well-known national conservative figure than Hovde, has also flirted with a U.S. Senate bid and has not done anything to dissuade the notion that he may also yet jump into the race next year.

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  1. Cecil Crusher on December 12, 2023 at 10:03 am

    “…losing major party ‘candidates’…” Based on the loose wording thereof, “Russ” Feingold is eligible for the list, having been the losing D nominee (without regard to incumbency) in 2010 and lost another bid six years later (yes, same wording issue with the 10 of 09 ’23 report).

    Whatever happens at the presidential balloting, Senator Baldwin seems to be a more-than-even-money bet to win whomever the Republicans nominate (a sizable number of rural, ‘automobile’ suburban, or Republican voters are apt to split their federal votes in the R/D fashion, as noted in a very recent report).

  2. elaine hudek on March 15, 2024 at 10:28 pm

    I presently like both incumbent senator Tammy Baldwin and candidate Eric hovde, and I like the added energy in the political landscape.

    Wisconsin has an exciting political history. I hope interest is renewed and brings our young people into the solutions-designing scene. I want them to have a more peaceful and sensible world than our present legislature has designed. Thanks.

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