Republicans hope to fill an obvious gap in their Senate candidate lineup

Wisconsin is one of the closest states in the country, but the Republican Party has not yet put forward a candidate who can challenge Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin.

Republicans have assembled a deep bench of candidates in most of the key states where they are fighting for a Senate takeover in 2024. However, one of the most evenly divided states in the country has been a weak spot for the Republican Party in terms of recruitment.

Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin announced in the summer that she would seek re-election, and since then, potential Republican opponents have dropped out one after another, deciding not to run.

Two relatively unknown Republican candidates have already filed to run, but the Republican Party still lacks a front-runner in Wisconsin. Republicans in the state and in Washington are pointing to the two remaining contenders who are still seriously considering Senate campaigns: businessman Eric Hovde and businessman Scott Meyer.

This is a different picture than in most of the rest of the Senate map, where Republicans need to pick up two seats (or one seat and the vice presidency) to gain control. In Montana, Republicans recruited a businessman with name recognition in the state. In West Virginia, a popular Republican governor and congressman have already lined up. Ohio Republicans have two self-funding candidates and a Republican incumbent who was elected from the state in the Senate primaries. In Pennsylvania, the party has brought back a businessman who narrowly lost in the 2022 primaries.

Despite Wisconsin's status as a perennial battleground, which was nearly evenly divided in recent elections, things have been slower there. However, according to a source familiar with the meetings, both Hovde and Meyer have met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate Republicans' campaign arm.

Both are prominent members of Wisconsin's business community who will have the ability to at least partially self-fund their campaigns.

Meyer is a political newcomer who will be running in his first election. Hovde ran for the Senate as a Republican in 2012 and narrowly lost to former Governor Tommy Thompson, who then lost to Baldwin in the general election.

Hovde also flirted with the possibility of running again in 2018 and considered running for governor in 2022 but ultimately passed on both races. Hovde told a gathering of the Jefferson County Republican Party last week, "I am praying about it earnestly, looking at it closely, working on it with my wife and two daughters. And maybe you'll see something."

As he gears up for another potential run, Republicans hope to avoid a bruising primary between two men willing to spend their own money to win.

"People on the Republican side are very concerned about what's happening in this country and recognize how important this U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin is," said Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who was reelected to a third term in 2022. "I hope they have those conversations and make a decision among themselves. Instead of having a bloody primary, let's get behind one of us and move forward," Johnson added.

How to avoid "bloody primaries" Meyer shares Johnson's sentiment. "We really don't need bloody primaries," he told NBC News. "But this is a free country," he added.

Many people working for Hovde did not respond to requests for comment. Last year, after he flirted with a gubernatorial bid, he told WisPolitics that primaries had gone well and produced candidates better prepared for more effective general election campaigns.

"I'm not one of those people who think we should anoint somebody with party insiders," Hovde said, adding, "Candidates get better by going through tough debates on stage, being in front of the public, and really having to make your case. That better prepares us for the general elections."

However, Republicans this year hope the party will coalesce early around one candidate against Baldwin.

"Primaries can be good, but in a situation where you've got an incumbent president with a lot of money and resources, we've been down that road before," said one Republican strategist in the state, referring to Baldwin's reelection in 2018, where she won by a margin of more than 10 percentage points.