GOP Candidate Eric Hovde Says He’s a Uniter—but Donates to the MAGA Extreme

The wealthy banker and accused carpetbagger has ripped the politics of division, while pouring money into the coffers of politicians who downplayed Jan. 6. Published Mar. 02, 2024 11:01PM EST Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Associated PressAt a luxury building in Wisconsin last week, mustachioed multimillionaire and accused carpetbagger Eric Hovde made the case for his

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The wealthy banker and accused carpetbagger has ripped the politics of division, while pouring money into the coffers of politicians who downplayed Jan. 6.

Kate Briquelet

A photo illustration of Eric Hovde

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Associated Press

At a luxury building in Wisconsin last week, mustachioed multimillionaire and accused carpetbagger Eric Hovde made the case for his election to the U.S. Senate in his run against two-term Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

“Are you ready to be uniters and healers for your country?” the 59-year-old Republican hedge-fund manager asked the crowd gathered in the rooftop Sky Club, a plush amenity at one of his real estate firm’s rental properties. “Are you ready to restore the American dream?”

Since announcing his run, Hovde—who also owns a California bank and $7 million mansion in Laguna Beach—has delivered a steady stream of platitudes on Twitter/X. “I don’t believe in the politics of destruction,” he posted. “That’s what has gotten us to where we are today.”

“The worst problem facing our nation is the division,” he wrote. “We are ripping apart our friendships and our families over politics. I’m in this fight to usher in a new brand of leadership and end politics as usual.”

But despite all his calls for togetherness—and what some observers have deemed a “meh” or “weirdly lackluster” campaign kickoff—Hovde has long aligned himself with and donated to some of the most divisive and extreme Republicans.

Next month, Hovde is scheduled as a guest speaker alongside Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) at a Republican Party of Brown County dinner. He already spoke at an event last fall with a Moms for Liberty activist and spent at least $8,000 as a sponsor of a conservative think-tank’s evening with Tucker Carlson, who used his air time to spout election fraud claims.

During the 2022 midterms, Hovde contributed the maximum amount to conspiracy-mongering Sen. Ron Johnson’s primary and general election accounts, and at the same time made a $5,000 max donation to the Wisconsin state GOP.

He’s also shelled out thousands of dollars to congressmen Glenn Grothman, who refused to denounce white supremacy and racist conspiracy theories, and Derrick Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL who used campaign funds to rally in D.C. on Jan. 6 and more recently made headlines for unleashing profanity-laden tirades on young Senate pages and Biden administration staff.

Last year, Hovde gave $10,000 to state Supreme Court candidate Dan Kelly, a favorite of anti-abortion groups and election deniers, and donated $20,000 to failed gubernatorial candidate and fellow multimillionaire Tim Michels in 2022. (Like Hovde, Michels’ Wisconsin residency was questioned after it was revealed he owned $30 million in East Coast properties including a $17 million Connecticut mansion.)

In 2018, he funded and endorsed the Senate campaign of Leah Vukmir, a former state rep with a history of trying to dismantle gay rights including through sponsoring a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Records show Hovde also donated $2,800 to former President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign on Election Day 2020.

Hovde doesn’t appear to have commented publicly on Trump’s stolen election lies, but at a January dinner of local Republicans, he called lawsuits against the GOP frontrunner, especially the civil fraud case related to his inflated assets, “a load of garbage” and “insanity” and decried the “weaponization of our Justice Department.”

Hovde told a local conservative radio host last week he’d support Trump as the Republican candidate and that his policies were “far superior to Joe Biden.”

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) talks with SiriusXM Host Michelangelo Signorile on SiriusXM Progress in Washington, DC.

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) talks with SiriusXM Host Michelangelo Signorile on SiriusXM Progress in Washington, DC.

Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM

The Daily Beast asked Hovde and his team for comment on whether he supports Trump’s voter fraud claims but they didn’t return messages.

He did find time, however, to challenge Baldwin to a dip in frigid waters. In an X video on Thursday, a shirtless Hovde floated in icy Lake Mendota outside one of his homes and declared, “So the Dems and Senator Baldwin keep saying I’m not from Wisconsin. Ha! Which is a complete joke. Alright, Senator Baldwin, why don’t you get out here on this frozen lake and let’s really see who’s from Wisconsin.”

Democrats have wasted no time zeroing in on Hovde’s past right-wing positions and cushy life in the Golden State, even arranging Cameos from Real Housewives of Orange County stars to troll him on his “work adventure” in the Badger State.

“Eric Hovde will push a divisive out-of-touch agenda that bans abortion nationwide and repeals the Affordable Care Act,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin rapid response director Arik Wolk told The Daily Beast. “From bankrolling anti-choice politicians to standing with extremist figures like Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene, Wisconsinites know Hovde is out of step with Wisconsin values.”

Hovde, who is expected to spend $20 million on the race, launched his first campaign ad this week, though the TV spot doesn’t mention the state of Wisconsin a single time. He is expected to partially self-fund his campaign, just as he did in 2012, when he spent nearly $6 million on a Senate primary race and lost.

Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said “outsider” candidates like Hovde often “complain about dysfunction and portray themselves as common-sense problem-solvers.”

“Ron Johnson campaigned on similar themes when he first ran in 2010, but he has become one of the most divisive and obstructive members of the U.S. Senate,” Burden told us. “He has spread misinformation about science, used his committee chair to pursue unfounded allegations against Hunter Biden, and has blocked compromises on the budget and immigration worked out by bipartisan groups of his Senate colleagues.”

“It is difficult to know if Wisconsin voters will ultimately see Hovde a successful problem-solver from the private sector or an interloper trying to buy himself a Senate seat from out of state,” Burden added.

Still, he said Hovde’s “connections to fringe elements on the right will surely be used by Democrats to argue that Hovde is far out of the mainstream.”

Hovde, who is backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the ​​National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), has flirted with Wisconsin politics since 2011.

That’s when he returned to his native Madison—buying a $1.75 million mansion on Lake Mendota—after spending two decades in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was interested in running for Senate.

At the time, he claimed to have $100 million in assets and dismissed the idea he could buy an election. “I’m taking my hard-earned money because I care about my country passionately and I’m worried it’s going to go through a financial collapse,” he told the AP. “And I’m being criticized for making a big investment that’s a giant negative return for me?”

During the 2012 primary bid, Hovde campaigned on ​​repealing former President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He also shared his support for overturning Roe v. Wade, saying he was “totally opposed” to legalized abortion. His former campaign website declared, “We must defend and protect all human life from conception to natural death.” (The site also announced he believes “that marriage is between one man and one woman.”)

He tweaked his abortion stance last week, saying he supports exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the mother’s life.

At one point, he was dinged for arguing reporters should stop writing “sob” stories about people who “couldn’t get their food stamps or this or that.” He added, “I’m like, but what about what’s happening to the country and the country as a whole? That’s going to devastate everybody.” Hovde later used the backlash to his remarks in a fundraising letter, saying he’d been taken out of context by liberal outlets including the Huffington Post and even suggested Ariana Huffington had attacked him.

“I will gladly debate Ms. Huffington any time and any place in front of a room full of journalists on what she has done for the less fortunate versus what I have done,” Hovde said, referring to his charity building homes for the poor in Central America and Africa.

At a forum in Madison, he further defended himself: “I have done more for people that are economically disadvantaged than probably—and I’ve never talked about it publicly because I keep it very low-profile—than all but for a very few people in our society.”

Hovde drifted out of the public eye after losing the primary to former Gov. Tommy Thompson (who lost to Baldwin).

In 2018, he purchased his Laguna Beach home in a gated community where billionaire Warren Buffet and actress Lori Laughlin had properties. The California mansion is a short drive from Hovde’s $2.9 billion multibank holding company, H Bancorp, and its flagship Sunwest Bank—for which Hovde stars in Old West-style TV commercials as the hero in a showdown with a “big banker.”

Indeed, opponents relish pointing out that the Orange County Business Journal named Hovde one of its 500 most influential people from 2018 to 2020.

They also seized on a Journal Sentinel report revealing Hovde was absent for 17 of the 30 Wisconsin elections in the last decade. (In the 2023 spring election, however, he and his wife voted by absentee ballots sent to their West Coast getaway.)

Hovde reemerged in 2020, looking tan in a TV ad he filmed in California and paid to broadcast in Wisconsin against Governor Tony Evers’ COVID stay-at-home order.

Last year, Hovde transferred his $2.3 million Washington, D.C., home to his brother and business partner, Steve Hovde—just months after the Journal Sentinel revealed his Laguna Beach digs. His spokesman said the sale had nothing to do with the upcoming Senate race.

Asked where he spent the most time, Hovde said, “This is laughable. OK, I’m born in Wisconsin, raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. My home is Wisconsin. I have a business in Wisconsin. So that’s my response.”

But when the NRSC’s chair confirmed Hovde’s candidacy last December, the mogul was photographed tossing money into the air and wearing a viking helmet prop in a video booth at his bank’s holiday party in Newport Beach.

Democrats also latched onto Hovde spending the end of October in California, sending someone in a cow costume to his door on Halloween. “Trick-or-treaters who tried to get candy at Hovde’s house in Madison yesterday were disappointed to find that Hovde wasn’t home,” Democrats said in a press release. “Instead of toughing out the first snow of the season in Wisconsin and handing out candy to Wisconsin trick-or-treaters, Hovde is getting ready to give his keynote speech at his 14th annual California Economic Forum at a luxurious resort in Orange County, California.”

Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said Hovde “isn’t a visible person” and has the “carpetbagger problem,” so Democrats will be working hard to shape his introduction to potential voters.

He weighed a run against Baldwin in 2018 and a bid for governor four years later but sat both out. “He dips in when he wants to think about dallying in politics,” Dolan said, adding, “Does it look like he’s just wondering what his best thing for himself is?”

“Is it just about his own sort of self-aggrandizement, or does he really want to be Senator from Wisconsin?” Dolan asked.

She said Hovde is up against Baldwin, a popular incumbent who is a “workhorse, not a show horse” and constantly delivers for constituents. “She is visible in the state,” Dolan said, “but it’s always in connection with what she’s doing for Wisconsin.”

While Hovde didn’t mention Trump in his 19-minute Sky Club speech, Dolan said Hovde would eventually have to kiss the Donald’s ring, especially at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee. “For him to generate interest, and for him to help generate that turnout, I think he’s got to be more of what the Republican voters here are going to expect,” Dolan said.

“He doesn’t want Trump to think that he isn’t as loyal as he can be,” Dolan added. “He doesn’t want Trump to question him at all.”

“His best chance of getting elected is to ride on Trump’s coattails and ride on any Republican wave here in Wisconsin if it appears, and he can’t do that as successfully by taking this middle road.”

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