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Republican Eric Hovde officially enters Wisconsin Senate race against Tammy Baldwin

Wisconsin businessman Eric Hovde officially launched his Senate campaign Tuesday, finally giving Republicans a challenger against Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., in a crucial battleground race that could determine control of the chamber.

His announcement, made in a 30-second video, ends months of speculation over who the GOP would pit against Baldwin, a strong and well-funded incumbent.

“Our country is facing enormous challenges. Our economy, our health care, crime and open borders. Everything is going in the wrong direction,” Hovde said in the video.

“All Washington does is divide us and talk about who’s to blame and nothing gets done. That’s not the country I know and love,” he adds. Hovde then introduces himself and says, “I’m running for the U.S. Senate.”

Campaign spokesperson Ben Voelkel told NBC News that Hovde would be holding a “special announcement” in Madison later Tuesday afternoon.

Hovde, a multi-millionaire whose business empire includes a Madison-based real estate company as well as several banking companies on the West Coast, is expected to be able to partly self-fund his campaign. Having run for office previously, he also has the benefit of some name recognition among voters — though a Marquette University Law School poll last month found that more than eight in 10 registered voters in the state didn’t know enough about Hovde to form an opinion of him.

But while Republicans view Wisconsin as being among the party’s top pickup opportunities this fall, defeating Baldwin, a two-term senator and a prolific fundraiser, will not be easy — even in a presidential year with a vulnerable incumbent Democrat at the top of the ticket.

That’s in large part due to the fact that state and national Democrats, having expected Hovde’s entrance into the race for several months following the decision by two prominent Republican members of Congress to not run, have been steadily attacking the newly minted candidate for living out of the state for several years and for his leadership of banks worth billions of dollars.

Wasting no time in continuing that strategy, the Wisconsin Democratic Party criticized Hovde within moments of his launch, dubbing him as “California Hovde,” because he owns a $7 million property in Laguna Beach and has lived in the state on-and-off since 2012.

“California bank owner Eric Hovde is running for Senate to impose his self-serving agenda, putting ultra rich people like himself ahead of middle-class Wisconsinites,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin rapid response director Arik Wolk said in a statement. “California Hovde’s self-serving agenda and attacks on Wisconsinites’ freedoms are exactly why Wisconsinites will reject him and send him back to his $7 million California mansion.”

Baldwin’s allies have also spent the past several months highlighting the fact that Hovde was in 2018 named as one of Orange County’s most influential people.

Hovde’s allies also came out swinging against Baldwin.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s official campaign arm — whose chairman, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., had signaled as early as December that the group would support a Hovde run — released an ad Tuesday afternoon slamming Baldwin over her statements about needing to stay home during the Covid pandemic and criticizing her for not taking on “special interests.”

“Tammy says one thing, does another,” the ad’s narrator says.

Daines, meanwhile, praised Hovde in a statement.

“Eric Hovde’s experience as a job creator rather than a career politician makes him a strong candidate to flip Wisconsin’s Senate seat this year,” Daines said.

Hovde’s political career in Wisconsin includes an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2012, when he lost the Republican primary to former Gov. Tommy Thompson — who went on to lose the general election to Baldwin. Hovde also flirted with running against Baldwin again in 2018 and considered a run for governor in 2022, but he decided against both races. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., speaks on Jan. 25 in Superior, Wis. Alex Brandon / AP file

Hovde’s decision to run this year caps a months-long odyssey for Republicans in Wisconsin during which several prospective candidates decided against challenging Baldwin.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., once thought of as the top recruit by national Republicans, said in June he wouldn’t run, and just this month said he was retiring from Congress altogether. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., opted against a bid two months later.

Hovde, however, may yet face an opponent for the GOP nomination. Scott Mayer, another Wisconsin businessman, has for months flirted with a run.

Asked by NBC News on Friday if he would enter the race, Mayer wrote in a text message that he was “not sure” and that he’d likely decide within “one month.”

Republicans have said they hope to avoid a contentious primary between two wealthy businessmen.

Democrats in Wisconsin have enjoyed a run of good fortune in recent years. Since Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin in the 2016 presidential contest, Democrats and Democratic-aligned candidates have won 15 of the last 18 statewide races.

But Republicans have still proven they can win statewide: Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., won re-election to his seat in 2022, providing the party with a roadmap on what Hovde’s path to victory could look like.

More broadly, Democrats face an uphill battle in maintaining control of the Senate. Democrats must defend 23 seats in November — which includes two seats held by independents who caucus with Democrats — while Republicans must defend only 11. 

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the Wisconsin Senate race “Lean Democratic.”

Read More:Republican Eric Hovde officially enters Wisconsin Senate race against Tammy Baldwin