Businessman Eric Hovde enters U.S. Senate race, setting up Wisconsin contest against Tammy Baldwin

MADISON — Madison businessman Eric Hovde made it official on Tuesday: he's running for U.S. Senate, aiming to deny Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin a third term.

Hovde launched a website and a campaign video Tuesday morning, hours ahead of an announcement event in a luxury apartment building his company owns in downtown Madison.

"Why am I here today? It's really simple," Hovde, 59, told supporters Tuesday afternoon. "I love my country. And everywhere I look today in my country, I see it failing. And sometimes I don't recognize what's happening."

Eric Hovde officially launches his campaign to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin at an event Tuesday, February 20, 2024 in Madison, Wisconsin. Hovde previously ran for Senate in 2012 but finished a close second to former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in the primary.
Eric Hovde officially launches his campaign to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin at an event Tuesday, February 20, 2024 in Madison, Wisconsin. Hovde previously ran for Senate in 2012 but finished a close second to former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in the primary.

Hovde shared the story of his great-grandparents, who emigrated from Norway and eventually settled in Stoughton. His great-grandfather  Ingvald “Inky” Hovde founded Hovde Properties — now owned by Eric Hovde and his brother Steve — in 1933.

"Every single one of you has these stories, where your ancestors made the bold decision to go pursue that American dream, that dream of freedom and liberty," Hovde said. "Sadly, though, that American dream has been in decline over the last number of years and particularly the last 3 1/2 years."

The GOP candidate listed a number of issues fueling his campaign, including the national debt, domestic security, illegal immigration and the country's international standing, and lamented the political differences that cause divisions among friends and family.

“We need to come together as a people. We have to stop putting on the red jersey or putting on the blue jersey and competing against each other," Hovde said. "We need to put on the red, white and blue jersey as Americans and come together.”

Eric Hovde officially launches his campaign to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin at an event Tuesday, February 20, 2024, in Madison, Wisconsin. Hovde previously ran for Senate in 2012 but finished a close second to former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in the primary. His brother and business partner Steve Hovde is in the background.

While Hovde spoke from the building's top-floor "Sky Club," which overlooks the state Capitol, a group of Democratic protesters stood across the street holding "Hovde for California" signs. Democrats have attempted to paint Hovde as an out-of-touch millionaire attempting to buy a Senate seat in Wisconsin, keying in on his business ties to California.

Hovde enters the race with the support of the national party. The National Republican Senatorial Committee late last year told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Hovde would run and said he had the full support of Senate Republicans' main campaign arm. The group on Tuesday launched a digital ad attacking Baldwin over her travel during the COVID-19 pandemic and her staff's lobbying connections.

More: Bice: Eric Hovde transferred $2.3 million D.C. house to his brother in August

NRSC Chair Steve Daines on Tuesday said Hovde's "experience as a job creator rather than a career politician makes him a strong candidate to flip Wisconsin's Senate seat this year."

The announcement sets up the prospect for a high-profile race in a battleground state that could prove key in determining which party controls the Senate next year. Senate Democrats this cycle are defending 23 seats, including three held by independents who caucus with Democrats. Just 11 Republicans are up for re-election.

Hovde previously ran for Senate in 2012 but finished a close second to former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in the primary. Thompson went on to lose to Baldwin by nearly 6 points. Hovde also weighed a race against Baldwin in 2018 but backed off, and briefly considered a run for governor in 2022.

In recent weeks, Hovde started to assemble his campaign team. He has traveled the state over the last several months speaking at various Republican events, making inflation and the nation's debt a focus as he railed against the Biden administration's handling of the economy. His campaign website lists the cost of living, immigration, foreign policy and health care as main issues.

In his speech on Tuesday, Hovde pledged he would not accept "corporate special interest" dollars and said he would work across the aisle without sacrificing his principles.

Republicans in both Washington and Wisconsin have indicated they do not want a drawn-out primary race ahead of a November matchup with Baldwin. Still, Franklin businessman Scott Mayer told the Journal Sentinel last week he was seriously considering a run as he attacked Hovde.

But Mayer also gave mixed signals about the status of his nascent campaign, initially saying he was finishing up hiring staff before walking back those claims. He said Tuesday he had "no comment" on Hovde's entrance into the race.

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. has also kept his name in the mix. A spokeswoman this week said Clarke is “still meeting with consultants and advisors" but did not comment on Hovde's announcement.

Baldwin, meanwhile, continued to campaign and fundraise as she waited for a big-name Republican to enter the race. She reported raising more than $3 million in the last quarter for 2023 — more than the $2.8 million she raised in the same period ahead of her successful 2018 campaign. She began the year with just over $8 million in cash on hand.

Baldwin is a rarity in Wisconsin's current political climate. In a battleground state where most statewide contests are decided by razor-thin margins, she doubled her victory margin from 2012 to 2018, defeating her GOP challenger, former state Sen. Leah Vukmir, by about 11 points.

Hovde, a resident of Madison, leads two California-based businesses — H Bancorp and its primary subsidiary, Sunwest Bank. Democrats have attacked him for his 2018 purchase of a $7 million hillside estate in Laguna Beach, California, dubbing him "Eric Hovde, R-Laguna Beach." His brother, Steve, disputed that narrative, introducing Hovde as someone who "bleeds Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers."

“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," Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Arik Wolk said in a statement. "Hovde would vote to pass a national abortion ban, raise taxes on working families and seniors while cutting Social Security and Medicare, and repeal the Affordable Care Act."

Senate Majority PAC spokeswoman Hannah Menchhoff in he own statement referred to Hovde as an "out of touch hedge fund manager who’s built his career catering to millionaires and billionaires" whose campaign "does nothing but kickstart what will inevitably become another brutal battle to the MAGA extreme."

The race is rated lean Democrat by both the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter and Sabato's Crystal Ball.

Jessie Opoien and Lawrence Andrea can be reached at jessie.opoien@jrn.com and landrea@jrn.com.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Eric Hovde enters U.S. Senate race in challenge to Tammy Baldwin