Dave Westlake: The 36-year-old small-business owner from Watertown has never before sought public office, and raised less than $30,000 during the first six months of his campaign. Westlake puts his religious beliefs on full display in discussing his conservative political positions.
Terrence Wall: The founder of T. Wall Properties, the Madison-area real estate developer, 45, has no political experience, aside from losing bids for village board. But he has the ability to self-finance and has won the support of many Republican political operatives.
Dick Leinenkugel: The 52-year-old former state secretary of Commerce has a famous name and two decades of experience helping run his family's Chippewa Falls-based brewery. But some question his commitment to party principles.
Dave Westlake, one of the state's three announced Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, puts it this way: "I think I've got as good a chance as anybody."
For starters, he doesn't have as good a chance as his two GOP rivals, Terrence Wall and Dick Leinenkugel. And none of them have anywhere near as good a chance as the Democratic incumbent, Russ Feingold.
Wall, a Madison-based real estate mogul, has oodles of money. But his only political experience is two failed bids for a seat on the Maple Bluff Board of Trustees. He came in fifth in a five-way race in 2001, and fourth among four contenders last year.
And Leinenkugel? He has a name you might recognize, but he's having a hard time proving his Republican street cred. Leinenkugel just finished an 18-month stint as Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's secretary of Commerce, where he backed programs many Republicans oppose, like high-speed rail and the Clean Energy Jobs Act. He recently held a fundraiser for a Democratic candidate.
Westlake doesn't have a big name or big money. All he has is a commitment to conservative politics and a wardrobe of bright orange shirts. These symbolize his belief that the public should be able to "see" their elected officials and hold them accountable.
The only guy with a very good chance of winning is Feingold, the three-term incumbent, whom the Cook Political Report rates as a "Safe Democrat." He's endeared himself to many voters for his dogged support of civil liberties, his criticism of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his advocacy for clean government and campaign finance reform.
Polls differ on how competitive the race is. The tightest estimate comes from conservative pollster Rasmussen Reports, which finds Feingold beating Wall by six points, Westlake by 12 and Leinenkugel by 11. A Democratic-leaning poll, Public Policy Polling, gives Feingold a 14-point edge over Wall and a 17-point lead over Westlake.
However, both polls find Feingold's support to be below 50%, a worrisome fact for any incumbent. As Reince Priebus, chair of the Wisconsin GOP, recently remarked, "What we have here is a candidate whose numbers are in the absolute toilet."
The emergence of three Republican challengers does indicate a perception among some that Feingold is vulnerable. But the GOP's best chance of fielding a strong contender may have vanished last month, when former Gov. Tommy Thompson announced that his family was not up for another campaign.
Thompson continues to enjoy statewide admiration from his 14 years as governor. Polls showed a potential contest between the two state icons to be a tossup, with the former governor commanding the loyalty of a good chunk of Wisconsinites.
Kathy Cramer-Walsh, a UW-Madison associate professor of political science, thinks Feingold is "safe" but expects him to face a competitive opponent in the general election.
"Health care will likely be a big issue, and we should be mindful of Tea Party-fostered opposition to that," she says, "but he does have a strong message to deliver regarding his opposition to the bailout."
Unsurprisingly, Feingold's first TV spot put the senator's opposition to government waste and bank bailouts on prominent display. But polls show Wisconsinites remain ambivalent about "ObamaCare," a fact the GOP will exploit relentlessly.
Another important theme will be Feingold's 18 years in Washington, which, as anybody with a knack for political talking points knows, means he's "forgotten" the people he represents. It's no wonder the websites of all three GOP candidates tout their support for term limits.
And if Obama's approval rating continues to decline, a rabblerousing anti-Beltway message might just buoy the challengers' chances.
In fact, Feingold began his own Senate career as an underdog candidate with a taste for gimmickry. He launched his first campaign in 1992 as a lowly state senator by posting a five-point pledge to his Middleton garage door. This included promises to never accept a pay raise, hold town hall meetings in all 72 Wisconsin counties every year, and hire most of his staff from Wisconsin.
Feingold, amazingly, has kept all of these promises, which will help him counter the anti-incumbency message.
Wall's campaign is staffed by state GOP elites, including former Congressman Scott Klug and a number of former Thompson team officials, like political operative Jim Klauser.
Leinenkugel's name may appeal to Wisconsin's love of cheap beer, but concerns over his party allegiance have prompted some conservatives, including the Sauk County Republican Party, to disavow his candidacy.
To win the Republican primary on Sept. 14, Leinenkugel will have to do more to appease the far right than brew up token campaign labels like "Reagan conservative" and "pro-life Catholic." And this might make it harder to go up against Feingold, who while liberal is seen as a maverick.
Leinenkugel is not the only Republican with loyalty issues. Terrence Wall has made campaign contributions to Democratic politicians including Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Gov. Jim Doyle and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Such giving might be a smart move for a developer seeking public subsidies and support, but it's not easy to explain to the typical voter.
All of which fuels Westlake's sense of optimism over his own chances. Asked about his lack of backing from GOP higher-ups, Westlake shrugs, "Endorsements matter more to the candidate than to the voters."
They also matter to media, whose coverage plays a large role in shaping perceptions of which candidates are viable.
The weakness of the GOP field has apparently caught the attention of Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman who plans to announce a decision on his candidacy within the next week. Like Wall, Johnson is a millionaire with little campaign experience. Unlike Wall, however, he has never given money to Democrats, and he is a capable public speaker, demonstrated by the rousing speech he gave at last month's Tea Party rally at the Capitol. He has also never worked for a Democrat, as Leinenkugel has.
Feingold enters the race with an impressive $4.3 million war chest, which will only grow as the Republicans fight (and spend) for the nomination. In 1998 Feingold pledged to spend no more than $1 per state resident, and narrowly beat heavily financed candidate Rep. Mark Neumann (who is now running for governor). In 2004 Feingold spent more freely and crushed opponent Tim Michels 58% to 40%.
In his first press conference as a candidate, Leinenkugel criticized Feingold's vote against the Patriot Act. But it's unlikely such messages will resonate more today than they did six years ago, when the events of 9/11 were fresher in people's minds.
A winning Republican strategy will hinge on health care and other economic issues. Feingold has protected himself well by publicly opposing cap-and-trade, an environmental policy that Republicans often frame as an economic Armageddon.
But if the economy doesn't improve, the public will likely hold the president and his party responsible. In such a scenario, Feingold may not be immune to the ensuing anti-Democratic plague.