Businessman Eric Hovde enters Wisconsin Senate race, setting up showdown in key battleground

He touted his business career but drew immediate attacks from Democrats.

February 21, 2024, 5:37 PM

Republican businessman Eric Hovde officially entered the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin this week, touting his entrepreneurial success as he tries to topple two-term Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin and help his party retake one half of Congress.

"Our country is facing enormous challenges: our economy, our health care, crime and open borders," Hovde said in an ad that preceded a kickoff speech in his home town of Madison on Tuesday. "Everything is going in the wrong direction. All Washington does is divide us and talk about who's to blame. And nothing gets done."

"We need to come together to find common sense solutions to restore America," he added.

Hovde's announcement sets up what will be one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country this year, in a state where major races -- for senator, for governor, for president -- have sometimes been decided by razor-thin margins. Hovde is not the only potential GOP contender: Businessman Scott Mayer has said he is considering a campaign.

In each of the last two presidential elections, less than a percentage point divided the candidates in Wisconsin, the only state where that was the case.

Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes, while Joe Biden took the state four years later by less than 21,000.

Further increasing the stakes is the two-seat edge Democrats currently hold in the U.S. Senate allowing them to approve Biden's judicial picks and help further his legislative agenda.

"This [race] is for the 51st vote, for both sides," Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican operative, told ABC News.

In his kickoff speech on Tuesdy, Hovde, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2012, argued that "politicians in large part don't understand how an economy works," suggesting he would bring "economic competency" to the Senate.

He serves as chief executive officer of multiple companies, including a real estate development firm and a bank holding company, according to a biography on one of the firms' websites.

Hovde's campaign site calls him a "classic entrepreneur" and notes that he founded his first company in his 20s.

But that same background -- particularly the fact that some of Hovde's businesses are based in states besides Wisconsin -- has already become fodder for Democrats, who accuse him of being an out-of-touch elite who is too wealthy to understand the needs of everyday Wisconsinites, echoing past attacks on failed Senate candidates like Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania.

PHOTO: Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks before President Joe Biden at the Earth Rider Brewery, Jan. 25, 2024, in Superior, Wis.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks before President Joe Biden at the Earth Rider Brewery, Jan. 25, 2024, in Superior, Wis.
Alex Brandon/AP

"California bank owner Eric Hovde is running for Senate to impose his self-serving agenda, putting ultra rich people like himself ahead of middle-class Wisconsinites," Arik Wolk, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement, referring to the fact that Hovde owns a home in Southern California.

Democrats believe that narrative around Hovde will contrast neatly with Baldwin, whom party leaders laud for paying heed to each corner of the state when she is in Wisconsin.

"She works tirelessly to get around the state and not ignore any community, any type of community that exists in Wisconsin, and because of that she has a proven track record of doing well all over the place," Joe Zepecki, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist, told ABC News.

Moreover, Democrats have outperformed Republicans in statewide elections in recent years, a pattern Zepecki, who attributes it in part to the growth of liberal Madison, believes bodes well for Baldwin.

"I am feeling as good as I can about the Senate race here," Zepecki said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are banking on Hovde's economic message to break through at a time when Americans are still suffering from high inflation.

"This race is likely to be about the economy," Scholz, the Republican operative, told ABC News.

Scholz said a challenge for Hovde will be how closely to tie himself to former President Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president, who, along with President Biden, suffers from low favorability and approval numbers nationally.

"Trump is too much of a wild card," said Scholz, who attributed Biden's 2020 victory in Wisconsin in part to the president's ability to rally a large anti-Trump coalition. "I think candidates have to stand on their own. You run on your record. If you don't have a record, you run on your qualifications. You are your own person."

Scholz, referring to the 12-year gap between Hovde's Senate runs, said he "has to rebuild the Hovde name."

"People have to talk about Eric Hovde, not anything else."

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