Politics / February 23, 2024

Mitch McConnell Wants to Hand Wisconsin’s Senate Seat to a California Banker

Urged on by the Senate minority leader, Wisconsin Republicans place a losing bet on a critical Senate race.

John Nichols

Eric Hovde’s Senate campaign announcement.

(WISN)

Mitch McConnell is desperate to retake control of the US Senate. The wily Republican and his minions have been meddling in contests across the country, trying to come up with candidates who can oust Democratic senators, in the hope that enough seats will flip so that this year’s 51-49 Democratic majority could become next year’s 51-49 Republican majority. That would restore McConnell, the 82-year-old Kentuckian who was first elected to the Senate four decades ago, to the majority leader position he held from 2015 to 2021.

Fortunately for the Democrats, McConnell continues to operate on the theory that the best Republican candidate is a rich guy who has never held public office. And he doesn’t seem to care whether his millionaire candidates have any real connection to the states in which he is running them.

In Montana, for instance, McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee worked overtime to clear a path for Tim Sheehy, a Minnesota native who graduated from the Naval Academy, served in the military, became a corporate CEO, and moved to Big Sky Country about a decade ago. Sheehy has only recently become a known entity in Montana politics. Or, to be more precise, a somewhat known entity. “For the grassroots movement, and people who knock doors and put up the signs and are busy for conservative Republican candidates, we have no idea who Tim Sheehy is—it’s ‘Sheehy who?’” Dr. Al Olszewski, who chairs the Republican Party in northwest Montana’s Flathead County, told The Daily Caller last summer. “He’s a ghost, he has not been involved in local politics or statewide politics.”

But Sheehy is a millionaire, many times over, so McConnell and his allies elbowed aside Montana’s sitting Republican congressman to clear the way for their favored recruit to take on Democratic Senator Jon Tester in one of the year’s premier Senate contests. And Sheehy’s now got the backing of the GOP’s rich guy in chief, alleged billionaire Donald Trump.

Sheehy is far from alone. There’s a growing list of wealthy Republicans with little or no experience in elected office that the party has positioned to mount high-stakes Senate campaigns this year. And some of them have such tenuous relationships with their states that they make Sheehy look like a true son of the soil.

Consider the millionaire whom The Hill identifies as McConnell’s “preferred candidate in Wisconsin.”

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That would be Eric Hovde, who announced this week that he would take on two-term Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin in the nation’s ultimate swing state.

Hovde is very rich. In addition to serving as chairman and CEO of Utah-based Sunwest Bank, which has at least $2.7 billion in assets, he’s the president and CEO of H. Bancorp, a holding company that hails itself as “a $2.9 billion multibank holding company providing banking solutions to small and middle market businesses across the United States.” He’s also the president and CEO of Hovde Capital Advisors, LLC, an asset management group, and president, CEO, and chief investment officer of Hovde Private Equity Advisors, LLC, a private equity firm. And he’s CEO of Hovde Properties, a real estate development company with a substantial portfolio of commercial and residential buildings.

All of that’s before you get to Hovde’s $7 million oceanfront mansion in Laguna Beach, Calif., which he purchased in 2018, and, conveniently, is located not far from the offices of what he refers to as “my main business.” He’s even become something of a celebrity in California, personally appearing in ads for his bank.

McConnell imagines that, somehow, this makes Hovde the best option for beating Baldwin. Wisconsinites, including some Republicans, are dubious.

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One of Hovde’s potential GOP primary rivals, Wisconsin businessman Scott Mayer, says he has doubts about whether “Wisconsin voters are keen on having a Wisconsin senator that lives in California.” Popular conservative talk show host Mark Belling has reminded his Milwaukee audience that Hovde’s record of actually casting ballots in Wisconsin is miserable, even suggesting at one point that the candidate’s name might be purged from the voter rolls because of his dismal voting record. “If you don’t care enough to vote in an election, I don’t know why we should trust you to be one of 100 people to vote on the future decisions of our nation,” said Belling, who added, “But I get that beggars can’t be choosers.”

Hovde’s campaign says the criticisms are unfair—that he’s got family roots in Wisconsin and owns a multimillion-dollar home on the shores of Madison’s Lake Mendota. And, of course, he ran for the Senate unsuccessfully in 2012, when he lost a Republican primary to former governor Tommy Thompson—who went on to lose to Baldwin.

But the state Democratic Party—which is headed by high-profile chair Ben Wikler, who helped lead a successful campaign two years ago against a Republican gubernatorial candidate who lived much of the time in Connecticut—is having a field day with the question of Hovde’s Wisconsin bona fides.

When Hovde formally announced his candidacy on Tuesday, Baldwin declared, “It’s official: Republican megamillionaire & California bank owner Eric Hovde is running against me for Wisconsin’s Senate seat.” The Wisconsin Democratic party’s statement was headlined: “California Bank Owner Eric Hovde Enters Senate Race, Running to Put the Ultra Rich Ahead of Wisconsinites.”

Wikler and the Democrats note that, while Hovde may have been raised in Wisconsin, he’s lived much of his adult life in Washington, D.C., and in California, and suggest that the candidate has a pattern of “only moving to Wisconsin when he wants to run for office.” Wikler is well aware that, in 2022, millionaire Dr. Mehmet Oz lost a critical Pennsylvania Senate race for the Republicans after his rival, John Fetterman, relentlessly reminded voters that Oz’s main residence appeared to be in New Jersey.

“California bank owner Eric Hovde (R-Laguna Beach) has spent so long in his $7 million California oceanfront mansion that he has been named one of Orange County’s most influential people—three times,” the Democrats gleefully explained. “”

While he’s been running his $2.8 billion bank and living on the only stretch of private beach on the entire California coastline, he’s missed Wisconsin elections over and over again, including during his Cabo yacht trip. In the most recent election he actually bothered to vote in, he had his ballot sent to his mansion in Laguna Beach. He’s shot TV commercials in California, [and] even Republican strategists have admitted that Hovde’s commercials “are very popular… in the state of California.” On the day he got the endorsement of Mitch McConnell and DC Republicans, Hovde was caught partying it up in Orange County, and even admitted earlier this month that his “main business” is his $2.8 billion California bank.

Hovde didn’t help himself much with a generic videotaped announcement of his candidacy, which featured his bland repetition of McConnell’s “everything is going in the wrong direction” talking points.

“I’m Eric Hovde. I’m running for the US Senate,” declared the candidate, in the message where Hovde made no mention of the fact that he’s running in Wisconsin. As he was making his formal announcement later in the day, amused Wisconsinites gathered outside the event with palm-tree emblazoned signs that read, “Hovde for California.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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