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Forget GOP Unity: Tuesday's US Senate Primary in Wisconsin Shows Party At War With Itself

There is no one Republican Party in 2012, as shown by who is bankrolling various factions.

Wisconsin's hotly-contested race to select its GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate is another battle between out-of-state Super PACs and Tea Party-associated nonprofits spending millions to convince election-weary voters to select their preferred candidate.

The influx of outside spending is fueling a race to the right as candidates compete for the label of "true conservative." Here is a rundown of the groups spending big to influence Wisconsin's GOP primary.

Three Way Race is a Tossup

The three-way primary between former four-term governor Tommy Thompson, former Congressman Mark Neumann, and political neophyte and multi-millionaire Eric Hovde is largely a tossup and, with outside money painting the leading candidates as insufficiently conservative, has mostly been a race to the right as they respond to attack ads. The winner of the Tuesday, August 14 primary will run against Democratic candidate Tammy Baldwin, who has represented Madison in the U.S. House since 1999.

Most polls show Thompson with just a slight lead over Hovde, and Neumann a close third -- although Neumann also has financial backing from Tea Party groups like Club for Growth and Tea Party Express, and endorsements from right-wing favorites like Sens. Rand Paul and Jim DeMint. (State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is also in the race, but runs far behind.) Around 1 in 5 voters remain undecided, making the race a bit of a tossup.

Thompson was popular as governor and came into the race with the greatest name recognition, but his opponents have attacked him for being too moderate, citing, for example, his past support for federal health care reform (which he has since vowed to repeal). Hovde has emerged as an alternative to Thompson despite having just moved back to Wisconsin in 2011 after 24 years in Washington, DC. The wealthy hedge fund manager, who made headlines for saying the press writes too many "sob stories" about people struggling in the recession, has self-funded his campaign. Neumann is a close third and has been making gains in the polls, largely thanks to millions of dollars in support from out-of-state Tea Party groups attacking his opponents for deviating from the right-wing line (and a few hundred thousand from a Democrat-aligned Super PAC attacking Thompson and Hovde).

Interestingly, though the deep-pocketed national Tea Party organizations have been investing heavily in Neumann, polls from July showed most Wisconsin voters who associate with the Tea Party supporting Thompson and Hovde, rather than the DC-based organizations' preferred candidate. The disparity between the national Tea Party organizations and the folks on the ground contradict claims that the Tea Party is a "grassroots" movement. 

Neumann Backed by Tea Party Dollars

Club for Growth's Super PAC is the big spender in the race, dropping $1.6 million on ads attacking both Thompson and Hovde. The anti-tax group was widely credited for Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz' upset victory over David Dewhurst in Texas' GOP primary. Their strategy in both the Texas and Wisconsin races is similar -- spending gobs of money painting their preferred candidate's opponents as moderates. One ad from the group attacks Thompson for pushing "nine different tax hikes" as governor and Hovde for supporting Wisconsin's "tax-raising [Democratic] Governor Jim Doyle," ending with the message that "on taxes, Hovde's like Thompson, only worse." A more recent ad takes a slightly softer tone, saying Thompson "did some good things years ago," but criticizes him for the "nine different tax hikes" and expressing support for federal healthcare reform, and noting Hovde supported a Wall Street bailout and high-speed rail. That ad expressly touts Neumann as "Wisconsin's most conservative Congressman in decades" and "the choice for conservative change."

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