MADISON (AP) — Mark Neumann secured the endorsement of the Tea Party Express in Wisconsin's Republican U.S. Senate race on Friday, a big pickup for the candidate who built his campaign around the argument that he's the most conservative choice.
The endorsement comes just three days after tea party candidate Ted Cruz, who also had Tea Party Express backing, upset establishment Republican candidate Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Texas GOP Senate runoff.
Neumann is hoping for a similar outcome in Wisconsin, where he faces former Gov. Tommy Thompson, state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and businessman Eric Hovde on Aug. 14. The winner will advance to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin in November.
Polls have shown Hovde and Thompson leading the pack, but Neumann has been running attack ads in recent weeks trying to close the gap leading up to the primary vote. The Tea Party Express endorsement proves his campaign is surging, Neumann said.
"It shows conservatives are coalescing around the true conservative in the race," said Neumann, a former two-term congressman.
The Express will run television ads on behalf of Neumann starting early next week, said Sal Russo, a veteran GOP political strategist who co-founded the group and runs it.
The endorsement will help build momentum for Neumann, a candidate that many within Wisconsin's tea party movement favor, said Kirsten Lombard, a Madison-based tea party organizer. She said her group, the Wisconsin 9/12 Project, has not endorsed any Senate candidate in the race and she's not aware of any in Wisconsin that have.
Despite the backing from the Tea Party Express, Neumann does not have the corner on tea party support.
Hovde has won the backing of tea party group FreedomWorks. But Neumann has the backing of other tea party favorites including South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and the anti-tax group Club for Growth.
In an interview Thursday, before the Tea Party Express endorsement was announced, Hovde said he feels like the Cruz victory in Texas was actually a better harbinger for him than Neumann.
"It's the fact that a career politician went down," said Hovde, who is running his first race after making millions in the private sector in real estate and as a hedge fund manager. "In that case it was Dewhurst and in this case it's Tommy. And Neumann, in many ways, is looked at the same as Tommy. He's not the newcomer in the field."
But Russo, the Tea Party Express leader, said the group went for Neumann over Hovde because of Neumann's record fighting government spending in Congress and his experience running statewide campaigns.
Neumann served four years in Congress in the 1990s. Since then, he ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 1998 and for governor in 2010. He made his millions as a real estate developer.
Thompson, the most well-known of the four candidates, was first elected to the Legislature in 1966 where he served for 20 years before being elected governor and serving there for 14. Thompson hasn't been embraced by tea party groups, even though he argues his conservative credentials stack up against anyone's given his record as governor undoing the state's welfare system and instituting school choice programs.
Thompson spokesman Brian Nemoir dismissed the endorsement, saying "this race is going to be won based on who voters trust, not which hand-picked candidate outside interest groups would prefer."
Hovde is modeling his campaign off of Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a tea party candidate who in 2010 knocked off incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Johnson, like Hovde, had never run for office before.
Neumann said he didn't know how much financial support the Tea Party Express would give his campaign, but he was hoping it would fire up grass-roots support less than two weeks before the election.
The Tea Party Express became a force in 2010, leading national bus tours backing candidates it favored and pouring money into key races across the country. But it also drew criticism from other tea party groups since it was led by people like Russo, a California political operative who spent nearly half a century campaigning for Republican candidates.
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