Over his controversial years in politics, David Clarke has worn several hats: Milwaukee sheriff, right-wing firebrand, prominent Donald Trump surrogate, and cowboy. (Literally.)
But there’s another hat Clarke might want to add to the collection: U.S. Senator.
As Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) gears up for her 2024 re-election campaign, Clarke has courted speculation in the Badger State that he is considering a challenge.
After a few relatively quiet years, Clarke has launched a new podcast where he expounds on his conservative views and lambasts the likes of Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) as “RINOs.” His fans on social media have urged him to run for Senate, and Democratic operatives have begun to view him as a potential candidate.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a representative for Clarke said he had not ruled out a campaign.
“As time goes on he may make a determination of what to do with the branding he has built up over the years, but not now,” said Judy Wilkinson, a Clarke spokesperson. “Clarke would never take anything off the table as it relates to his future.”
While Wilkinson explained that Clarke’s “objective right now is to become a thought leader in the conservative movement,” she previewed a potential line of attack against the incumbent Democratic senator.
“Tammy Baldwin knows she’s vulnerable,” she said. “She will be well funded, but she has no message and runs strictly on her identity politics checklist. She is a back-bencher in the U.S. Senate.”
If he decided to run, Clarke would instantly change the dynamic of what is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate contests of the 2024 season. His staunch support of Trump, his image as a “balls-to-the-wall” cop, and his long record of frequently outrageous statements have given him nationwide MAGA movement popularity that could be an asset in a GOP primary—and an anchor against Baldwin.
Unlike other potential GOP candidates, Clarke boasts real popularity in the national MAGA movement for his vocal backing of Trump, hardcore lawman image, and long record of frequently outrageous statements
“People appreciate his no-nonsense, well-thought-out positions on major issues,” Wilkinson said. “They like his blunt, no-sugar-coated take on issues.”
During the 2016 election, for instance, Clarke called for Trump supporters to take up “pitchforks and torches” against Democrats and the media. In 2020, Clarke invited the far-right Proud Boys gang to Wisconsin, backed the ex-president’s false claims of election fraud, and urged Jan. 6 rioters not to cooperate with law enforcement.
On other occasions, Clarke went after teenage survivors of the Parkland mass shooting; in 2018, he was temporarily banned from Twitter for calling on his followers to attack members of the media and “MAKE THEM TASTE THEIR OWN BLOOD.”
Milwaukee County's sheriff for roughly 15 years, Clarke and his department faced allegations of abuse of power—some of which resulted in lawsuits—and Clarke himself was scrutinized for spending stretches of time away from the county attending events and giving speeches. More recently, he was closely associated with Steve Bannon’s project to crowdfund construction of the southern border wall, which resulted in Bannon being indicted for fraud.
As the 2022 election proved, such a record doesn’t exactly lead to electoral success in highly competitive states. But Clarke could also be toying with the prospect to raise his profile and do other things.
“If he runs, he’d be political poison for the GOP,” said Charlie Sykes, the longtime Wisconsin conservative pundit and editor-at-large of The Bulwark.
Democrats, meanwhile, would likely love nothing more than to run against Clarke.
“If David Clarke wants to put his record of failure and MAGA conspiracy theories up against Senator Baldwin's work fighting for Wisconsin families, we are more than happy to have that fight,” said Arik Wolk, Rapid Response Director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
While the comments from Clarke’s camp are the clearest indication that he is interested in a Senate run, some Wisconsin politicos have scrutinized his recent moves for clues to his plans.
After years as a fixture in conservative media—more so on Newsmax and fringe podcasts than Fox News, where he was de facto banned in 2019—Clarke has launched a new podcast, titled “Straight Talk With America’s Sheriff David Clarke.”
On the first episode of the podcast, which was released on Monday, Clarke reintroduced himself to listeners in a 30-minute monologue—one in which he could have easily been mistaken for an aspiring anti-establishment GOP candidate for Senate.
In between self-recorded ads for MyPillow bedding and a patriotic version of The Bible, Clarke claimed he predicted Republicans would get “wiped out” in the 2022 midterms and blamed it on the institutional GOP. “We don’t have fighters on our side,” he said. “The Republican Party is a mess.”
For conservative candidates looking to burnish their credentials—and underscore to voters they will be loyal in Washington—criticizing moderate GOP senators is a common primary season ploy. And Clarke took care to call out several of them by name during his podcast.
“Everyone runs around, at election time, ‘I’m a conservative, I’m a conservative,’” he said. “Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, they're not Reagan conservatives, they’re not Goldwater conservatives; they’re RINOs.”
What might have registered most for readers of the Wisconsin tea leaves, however, was Clarke’s explanation that he got elected and re-elected as sheriff in a heavily Democratic county with voters knowing full well he was a conservative—illustration of potential crossover appeal in a battleground state.
“I was a balls-to-the-wall, hardcore, tough-on-crime law enforcement executive,” he said. “And they rewarded me for it.”
Notably, however, Clarke ran as a Democrat in all four of his elections for Milwaukee County Sheriff, sometimes defeating a Republican. He explained the affiliation as a matter of necessity to win and claimed it was widely known he was a “rock-solid conservative.” In 2017, he resigned rather than seek another term, with polls showing that he was in serious political trouble.
While Clarke’s estimation of the GOP’s midterm performance is not wrong, Wisconsin was a brighter spot for the party in 2022. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) defeated Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), representing the GOP’s only victory in a core battleground state. However, Johnson’s margin of victory was nearly the narrowest of any incumbent, and Wisconsin remains one of the country’s most divided states.
Faced with a daunting 2024 Senate map—in which they are defending deep-red states like West Virginia and Montana—Democrats are trusting Baldwin to hold a key seat. Although a staunch progressive, the two-term senator is a proven fundraiser and is entering campaign season with $3 million in the bank.
No notable Republican has yet declared a challenge to Baldwin, though Wisconsin has a decent roster of potential candidates, including Reps. Mike Gallagher and Bryan Steil, media personality and former Rep. Sean Duffy, along with several business community figures.
Joe Zepecki, a Democratic operative, said that a pronounced rift in Wisconsin between the establishment and outsider wings of the GOP could open a lane for someone like Clarke. He noted that other staunch Trump allies are growing quieter as 2024 nears, while Clarke has been ramping up his presence.
“Could it be a grift and he’s trying to make a buck? Absolutely,” Zepecki said. “It doesn’t mean he’s not considering running. It’s as real as anyone else.”