DANE — Hedge fund manager Eric Hovde entered Wisconsin's Republican U.S. Senate race Thursday, attempting to position himself as an anti-government conservative even though his company invested in banks that received billions in government bail outs.
Hovde, 47, has been rumored as a potential candidate for the open U.S. Senate seat for months. He officially launched his campaign with a series of stops across the state on Thursday.
A political newcomer running his first statewide campaign, Hovde is taking on one of the biggest names in Wisconsin politics, former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Other Republicans in the race include state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann.
The only Democrat in the race is U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
They are running for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl.
In his campaign launch at a manufacturing company north of Madison, Hovde lashed out at the federal stimulus program and bank bailout program known as TARP, saying the government was "addicted to spending."
"They were bailed out with our money, our taxpayer money, without any consequences," he said.
But U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records show that Hovde's company invested in at least 33 banks that received $29 billion in TARP money.
When asked about it, Hovde differentiated between owning banks that received federal bailouts and investing in them.
"None of the banks that I owned took TARP money," he said. "You're always investing when you're running an asset management company in a variety of different companies. But I was opposed to the way TARP was structured. I thought it was a complete bailout and the executives were never held responsible."
That comment is consistent with what Hovde said in a 2009 interview on CNBC when he spoke out against how TARP was organized, but not government bailing out banks.
"Without question I was an advocate from the get-go to inject capital into the banking system," he said then. "But you should've done it on terms that were a little bit more punitive and required them to act with private capital along with it as well as putting the government's money, taxpayers' money, in the most senior position."
Hovde later told The Associated Press there was "no way" he could have avoided investing in banks that got TARP money because so many of them had.
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate characterized Hovde as out of touch with the concerns of the middle class.
"Wisconsin doesn't need a multimillionaire carpetbagger trying to buy a seat in the U.S. Senate by trying to trick working families into thinking he somehow understands their struggle," Tate said in a statement.
Hovde lived in Washington, D.C., for 24 years relocated in July to Madison, where he grew up. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is married with two children.
Hovde is chief executive officer of Hovde Capital Advisors, a hedge fund management company, and he also has real estate investments and interests in community banks. He and his brother also run a charitable foundation.
Hovde is expected to spend his own money on trying to raise his profile among voters, but he refused to say Thursday how much of his money he would spend or when his first television ads would launch.
"I'm going to make a commitment, but my race is not about how much I spend," he said.
Hovde's campaign comes after Ron Johnson, another political newcomer, came out of nowhere in 2010 and spent millions of his own money to defeat Democratic incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold. Even though Hovde faces a crowded field of experienced Republican opponents, he said he thinks his lack of political experience is an asset.
"I think the American people are tired of electing career politicians," he said.
Fitzgerald issued a statement welcoming Hovde into the race, but touting his own experience as Assembly speaker working to pass a conservative agenda the past two years that included Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
Neumann's campaign manager Chip Englander said Hovde's record, and the fact that he lived the past 24 years in Washington, will not sell with conservative voters this year.
Thompson's campaign spokesman Darrin Schmitz issued a dismissive statement on Hovde's candidacy.
"We don't know much about Eric Hovde since he just moved here, but Gov. Thompson has never campaigned looking over his shoulder," Schmitz said.
The Republican primary is Aug. 14.