Eric Hovde and Mark Neumann each touted their entrepreneurial experience.
In the absence of two of the four announced candidates, a Dane County Young Republicans forum Tuesday night was more a celebration of recent GOP victories and the group's own membership growth than a debate between rivals running for the open U.S. Senate held by retiring Sen. Herb Kohl. Only businessman Eric Hovde and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann attended. Also speaking was U.S. House candidate Chad Lee, who is running for the District 2 seat; he lost in 2010 to Tammy Baldwin, who is the likely Democratic nominee for the Senate seat.
Buoyed by their recent victory in the June 5 recall elections, in which Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and three Republican state senators beat back challengers, around 100 Republican supporters attended the forum. The night opened with a big round of cheers for Walker.
"Even though it's a different format than originally planned, we've got a good showing," said David Summers, spokesperson for the Young Republicans.
Charla Halverson founded the group three years ago when she moved to Wisconsin from Georgia. At the forum, Halverson explained that it didn't take her long to realize Republicans were in the minority in Dane County. "We're helping [Republicans] come out," she said.
The group's T-shirts emphasize the point: "Dane County Young Republicans - Yes, we do exist." The group has built membership through happy hours and activist events like its November Recall the Recall Rally, which featured guest speakers, radio talker Vicki McKenna and state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine). Tuesday's event marks the group's first public forum with candidates.
The candidates and emcee David Blaska praised the work of the Dane County Young Republicans, which now has more than 100 members.
"Most conservatives still live in the closet," said Blaska. "All of us in this room have a lot of courage."
Attesting to hostility conservative candidates face in Dane County, Hovde described in his opening statement harassment he faced on June 5, when a group of protesters sought him out while he sat at an outdoors table at Coopers Tavern on the Square. He said they surrounded him and blew horns.
In their respective speeches, Hovde and Neumann -- and Chad Lee for that matter -- each touted their entrepreneurial experience. This resonated with group members, described by Summers as young professionals.
Neumann, a "homebuilder by trade," emphasized his personal experience in the private sector and his "battle years" in Washington. "America was built by people moving from the private sector to Washington and returning to the private sector," he said.
Hovde, a self-described "classic entrepreneur," does not have political experience, and he tried to use that to his advantage. Calling himself a "citizen legislator," Hovde said he never planned to be a politician and doesn't expect to spend much of his life in politics. In fact, he's already signed a term-limit pledge and offered to forgo reelection to "put the country first."
In outlining their platforms, Neumann and Hovde both prioritized balancing the federal budget and repealing Pres. Barack Obama's health care reform law, which conservatives refer to as "Obamacare."
Neumann said he has a five-year plan to balance the budget, and a 30-year plan to end the federal deficit.
Hovde referred to former Republican Pres. Ronald Reagan several times in describing his eight-part platform. He didn't have time to get through each point, but his first three priorities are balancing the budget, reforming the tax code, and pursuing a "deregulatory agenda."
While Neumann came off as tough and pragmatic, Hovde was the more demonstrative of the two, raising his voice and walking around the stage to engage the audience.
Neumann contended that even if he were elected, addressing the federal budget and deficit issues would not be easy. "We've got a very difficult road ahead of us," he said.
Brooke Froelich, chair of the Young Republicans, ended the evening with a final pitch for the groups' T-shirts and a rallying cry for all Republican candidates: "Let's take home a victory in 2012."