Column: Champagne wishes and caviar dreams … of a Senate seat in Wisconsin?


Eric Hovde has, from the looks of it, a pretty swell life.

The banking executive is a millionaire many times over. He owns an ocean-view mansion in Laguna Beach and was named by the Orange County Business Journal for three years running as one of the county’s most influential individuals.

Yet for more than a decade, Hovde, 60, has had a hankering to hold political office. Normally, this is where we’d insert the long litany of rich folk — Michael Huffington, Al Checchi, Meg Whitman among them — who’ve tried and face-planted in their bid to get elected statewide in California.

But Hovde isn’t running here: He’s the leading Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. It’s where Hovde was born and raised — though, save for an unsuccessful Senate run in 2012, he’s been pretty scarce there the past several years.

Hovde’s opponent is Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who’s running for a third term and starts as a favorite — though not an overwhelming one — to win reelection. In recent years, Wisconsin has replaced Florida as perhaps the most competitive swing state in America.

“We’re deeply polarized by party,” said Charles Franklin, a pollster at Wisconsin’s Marquette University, who notes several contests have been decided in the last decade by exceedingly close margins.

It’s vital for Democrats to hold onto Baldwin’s seat in November if they stand any chance of keeping their bare Senate majority. So naturally they’ve sought to turn Hovde’s California ties into a major campaign issue.

They’ve posted billboards and created a website linking Hovde, or, rather, “California bank owner Eric Hovde (R-Laguna Beach),” to a luxe life of champagne and pleasure. A TV spot — crashing surf, sparkling wine and, of course, palm trees — ends with a rhetorical question: “Eric Hovde on Wisconsin’s side? Don’t bank on it.”

That attempt at California-shaming amounts to a role reversal of sorts. Typically, it’s Republicans in red states like Texas who wield the Golden State as a weapon, turning Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi into demon figureheads.

However, it’s not the state’s left-leaning politicians that Democrats are trying to yoke around Hovde’s neck. Rather, they’re trying to raise doubts about his relatability.

“There are rich people in Wisconsin who have multiple homes, too,” said Lilly Goren, who teaches political science at Waukesha’s Carroll University. “But if you spend most of your time out in California where you don’t have to deal with snow and rain and sleet and it’s always sunny, we think you’re living a little bit of a different life.”

Hovde insists he’s a Wisconsinite down to the tips of his toes, which he sank not long ago into Madison’s frozen Lake Mendota. (Actually, he plunged in chest-deep.)

“So the Dems and Sen. Baldwin keep saying I’m not from Wisconsin, which is a complete joke,” a shirtless Hovde said, mid-dip, in a social media post that has been viewed more than 1 million times.

”!!Warning,” the post reads. “Not safe for Californians and career politicians!!”

Brrr.

In an interview last year with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, before Hovde launched his candidacy, he “guffawed with amusement” when asked if he was spending the bulk of his time in California or Wisconsin.

“I’m born in Wisconsin, raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Wisconsin,” Hovde told the newspaper. “My home is Wisconsin. I have a business in Wisconsin. So that’s my response.”

The business, Hovde Properties, is a Madison-based real estate company founded by his grandfather. Hovde is also chairman and CEO of Irvine-based H Bancorp and its chief subsidiary, Sunwest Bank.

Since entering the race, Hovde has adopted a nothing-to-see-here approach to questions about his residency — even as he immerses in ice water and exults over the “fantastic fun” of ax-throwing, another moment shared on social media, as a way of bolstering his Badger State bona fides.

Lately, however, the California question has been overshadowed by remarks Hovde made about older voters, who happen to make up a sizable chunk of Wisconsin’s electorate. (A quarter of residents are 60 or older; nearly 1 in 5 are 65 and up.)

Hinting at irregularities in the 2020 election — which seems to be the price of admission to the GOP these days — Hovde repeated bogus claims of widespread voting fraud at Wisconsin nursing homes. In doing so, he questioned the capacity of elderly residents to coherently cast their ballot.

“If you’re in a nursing home, you only have a five-, six-month life expectancy,” Hovde said in a talk-radio interview. “Almost nobody in a nursing home is at a point to vote.”

Which is one way to address the Democratic advantage among seniors — you could simply disenfranchise them — though, for the record, Hovde later clarified his statement by saying, “I think elderly absolutely should vote.”

Unfortunately for Hovde, even as he worked to clean up that political mess, Sunwest Bank was named as co-defendant in a wrongful-death lawsuit targeting a Southern California senior living facility that the bank partly owns. A Hovde spokesperson said neither the bank nor Hovde were involved in the facility’s day-to-day operations.

All in all, that’s made for pretty rough going for Hovde, though there is some consolation should his Senate bid fall short. He still has that mansion awaiting him back in Laguna Beach.

Happy to troll Hovde, Wisconsin’s Democratic Party rounded up cast members of the “Real Housewives of Orange County,” who sent their best wishes in a video and said they dearly miss their sometime-neighbor.

“Cannot wait, just like your friends, for you to come back,” said cast member Gina Kirschenheiter.

“Be back safe, enjoy your journey,” said Vicki Gunvalson, the self-proclaimed “OG of the OC.” Blowing a kiss, she added, “Don’t forget to whoop it while you’re in Wisconsin. Have some cheese curds.”

Which just goes to show, the stereotypes and trash-talking run both ways.



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