Tommy Thompson's victory in Wisconsin's Republican U.S. Senate primary runs contrary to recent elections won by new-wave conservatives with closer ties to the tea party.

Thompson, the former 14-year governor, on Tuesday beat not only the tea party favorite, but also a better-funded businessman running his first campaign and a young, conservative lawmaker with close ties to the GOP's beloved Gov. Scott Walker.

Thompson's win could signal a move toward the middle for Republicans in Wisconsin, a state that traditionally has never been too far blue or too far red for long.

"Wisconsin's always known for zigging when everybody expects them to zag," said Tim Dake, organizer of a Milwaukee-area tea party group. "People like to stay in the middle in this state. They like to keep it purple."

Thompson will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin in the Nov. 6 election for the open seat that looms large in Republican plans to win back control of the Senate. Polls before the GOP primary showed a tight race between Thompson and Baldwin.

Thompson's win comes just two months after conservatives helped Walker fend off a recall attempt and less than two years after tea party favorite Ron Johnson knocked off Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.

Wisconsin has been at the tip of the national new-wave conservative movement. Native Paul Ryan, a congressman from Janesville, kept the momentum going when he joined Mitt Romney's ticket as his running mate on Saturday. And Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, also hails from Wisconsin.

But tea party leaders, who saw Thompson as embracing big government spending, openly urged him not to get into the race last year. National conservative group the Club for Growth ran ads attacking him before he launched his campaign and endorsed one of his opponents.

Thompson made the case that he was the most conservative candidate, even though his record is filled with examples of working both with Democrats and their backers like public unions.

"Tommy Thompson had to pledge his allegiance to the tea party extremism," said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate.

Kirsten Lombard, organizer of a Madison-area tea party group, said Thompson's win doesn't represent any move to the middle by Wisconsin Republicans.

"There was a very successful division of the anti-Tommy vote," Lombard said. "I think that if some of those non-Tommy candidates had either not run or had not gained some of the support that they did, the anti-Tommy vote would have coalesced better."

Thompson won with 34 percent of the vote, while his three opponents combined had 66 percent.

"He survived as the result of a divided field," said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The majority of Wisconsin Republicans rejected him and chose an alternative and that stands in stark contrast to the unified, broad support that Tammy Baldwin has."

For much of the 1990s, the affable Thompson, now 70, epitomized the kind of Republican who could succeed in Wisconsin, with its socially moderate tradition. Before Thompson's election in 1986, five of the previous seven governors had been Democrats.

He often governed by consensus. He got Democratic support for introducing the nation's first private school choice program in Milwaukee in 1990 and even won over some Democrats for his overhaul of the welfare system in the mid-1990s.

Thompson also worked well with public unions during his time as governor, unlike Walker who so enraged them with his attack on collective bargaining that they spearheaded the drive to recall him from office.

His deep connections in the state going back nearly 50 years — he first won elected office in 1966 — created a familiarity with voters so strong most simply refer to him by his first name.

Now Democrats, hoping to keep the U.S. Senate seat in their hands as it has been since 1957, are faced with the daunting challenge of knocking off Thompson in a state he has carried four times in general elections for governor and now twice in partisan primaries.

Thompson won a narrow but solid 3-point victory on Tuesday despite being attacked by his opponents and outside groups as not conservative enough.

Thompson's closest rival was Eric Hovde, a Wisconsin native who had lived 24 years in Washington, D.C., before returning to Madison in 2011. Hovde spent at least $4 million of his own personal fortune on the race, largely dominating the airwaves.

The tea party favorite, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, came in a distant third with just 23 percent of the vote. Neumann, who argued he had the most conservative credentials, won the backing of the Tea Party Express, the anti-tax group Club for Growth and a bevy of tea party favorites including U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Jim DeMint.

Thompson easily beat state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, a close ally of Walker's whose campaign never generated momentum and couldn't raise enough money to compete. Fitzgerald, 44, argued during that campaign that Thompson's time has passed, ironically, sitting underneath a portrait of Thompson inside his Capitol office.

All three pledged to support Thompson and turned their sites on Baldwin, whom Republicans have attempted to brand as far too liberal to win a statewide election.

Baldwin is largely unknown outside of her Madison congressional district which she's held since 1998, the same year that Thompson last won statewide office.

However, while Thompson has been in the public eye for decades, Baldwin said she wasn't worried that he might have the advantage in name recognition.

"We all know Tommy Thompson from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. He's been working in Washington for the last decade. I think he needs to re-introduce himself to the state," Baldwin said. She later added, "Tammy and Tommy are both recognizable names as far as I'm concerned."

Baldwin, who would become the first openly gay U.S. senator if elected, benefited from having no competition on the primary ballot, allowing her to raise money and campaign statewide relatively unencumbered.

Tea party organizer Dake, who didn't support Thompson, said even though he "comes with a lot of baggage," he still expects him to defeat Baldwin. And Lombard said while she's disappointed that he won the primary, she expects to vote for him.


Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Milwaukee.

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(32) comments

Fflambeau
Fflambeau

Thompson is 70 and would be 71 as a senator if elected. That's far too old. He's also a career politician (and now a lobbyist for health care firms). Thompson has seen his day; time for fresh blood.

RedNedwasRight
RedNedwasRight

RichRuss with the biggest reach of the day. You can list all the various media outlets you want - without hard numbers showing how many people are reached you are being a clown.
I'm talking about ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN. If you throw in FOX News it's only 80% slanted to the left.

The lefty's get so bent out of shape about FOX News, yet they never acknowledge that FOX News was created as a direct answer to liberal news, and that FOX News is #1 in viewership. Think about that. 80% of news media bend left, yet the one outlet that doesn't is tops.
I'd say it's obvious that the general public is sick of the left media slant, yet the explanation from the left is that conservative voters are stupid and vote against their self interests.

Who's right? The people who form their own opinions? Or the Nanny state liberals who know vetter than everyone else?

I am glad to live in this time, able to watch liberalism on it's drath bed.
Truth hurts.

whatistruth
whatistruth

Is your daytime job with the National Enquirer?

array1
array1

Interesting that you find MOST news leans left. Oh well, at least you have fox.

dmark
dmark

FOX News is #1 in viewership

While that may be true, how many people is that?

Comparing Fox to its 24-hour news channel competitors, for the month of May 2010 the channel drew an average daily prime time audience of 1.8 million versus 747,000 for MSNBC and 595,000 for CNN.

1.8M out of over 300M population. That amounts to a bunch of old people sucking their teeth.

JBANK
JBANK

Tommy is a moderate Republican. Tammy Baldwin is on the far left of the Democratice Party. She has an extreme voting record that does not match up well with people outside Madison. Are the folks in the middle going to stay in the center with Tommy or move outward toward Tammy who is out on the fringe? The answer is simple. He has cross-over appeal. She has none. The folks will take a look at Tammy because she will run an excellent campaign but then they will pull the lever for Tommy.

ersatz
ersatz

Boy, this article offers an incredibly stupid analysis.
Tommy has already veered hard right and mouths the same inane platitudes as the other mouth-foaming Repugs. How does this signal a change from the recent TP lunacy?

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

"All three pledged to support Thompson and turned their sites on Baldwin, ..."

Heh heh heh. I guess the Aurora and Oak Creek massacres have even gotten to the language, as it's apparently now websites and not gunsights that get re-aimed.

madtownative
madtownative

Richard, you are generally insightful and in good wit, but your last comment is unacceptable...innocent people died, show some respect...

Nav
Nav

Tanny Baldwin will soundly defeat Thompson. The people of wisconsin, finally, are waking up and seeing through these Republicans for who they really are. Walker is also a one termer. Go Tammy!

Kevin
Kevin

I like your ability to laugh at yourself Nav... May I add to your ridiculous and obvious sarcasm....? Okay here goes... Walker will be recalled in a big way. There is no way Wisconsin will vote in a Republican Governor. Other than being gay, Tammy is well known for what she has accomplished in here "carrier” The democrats have a plan and they know how to lead. OMG that was fun Nav!!! Let’s do that again real soon!

Nav
Nav

No sarcasm here Kevin. For your information, If you have been reading polls, Tammy Baldwin is running neck and neck with Thompson in some polls, and even ahead in other polls. And this after Walker won his recall election. Does that mean anything to you, Kevin?

What it signifies to me is that Wisconsites are not happy with what the Republicans have done, or are doing. You might want to read up that after being 10 years in Congress, Ryan was only able to have two bills passed. Ron Johnson just collects his $175,000 salary and has NOTHING to show for. I dont think the people of Wisconsin want someone like Thompson to keep running for office because it shows them something about that person's obsession with power. Just saying!

JakeWeery
JakeWeery

One day, God willing, the rest of the world will get as tired as I am of Fanboy political commentary.

RedNedwasRight
RedNedwasRight

I gad to wait a few hours before commenting, I was laighing so much........

Clearly most media leans left.
Good example right now -
Joe Biden, referencing R policy and Wall street told a mostly African American crowd that the GOP would "Put ya'all back in chains".

Very litlle media play.
Can you imagine the media firestorm if Romney or Ryan had said the exact same words?
Another milepost on the road to liberalism's death - regular people have woken up to the media's double standard in covering politics.

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

"Clearly most media leans left."
 
To those sailing hard over to the right in a raging gale, a lighthouse looks as if it's leaning left. That's true even if the raging gale comprises a never-ending hurricane of right-wing talking points emanating from megacorp press syndicates, megacorp TV networks, AM talk radio, and Rupert Murdoch's propaganda empire.

JakeWeery
JakeWeery

Or as I like to say, "If it's not talking points from the RNC, it must be liberal propaganda".

Good Gosh
Good Gosh

Silly RedNedwasRight, the Ryan/Romney ticket would NEVER say Wall Street would put African Americans in chains. Heck, they'd never admit the truth!

joe
joe

According to this analysis, I guess Baldwin doesn't have a chance since she is die hard blue.

GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN
GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN

Hey, Tommy, step out on your back porch. I betcha you can see November from there!!!

Welcome to the Cheesehead Revolution.

The whole world is watching.
The whole world is watching.
The whole world is watching.

Veritas.

array1
array1

umm dog............. are you ok??

Roundtable
Roundtable

Mr. Thompson did sign the 'pledge'. Now wouldn't be the time to assume anything different than tea party. With his 50-50 chance of getting elected,I think you'd have to see if he gets elected first.If.

mzd
mzd

I agree, it doesn't mean diddly. I suspect lots of progressives myself included crossed over simply to vote for the lesser of three evils. Let's see what happens in November.

graefental
graefental

Good on you, Tommy. You never put on the brown shirt.

everyman47
everyman47

Wow what a wishful article written by a liberal. Many of us would have preferred a harder commitment to fiscal responsibility but Thompson is a big name and will do the right thing in office.

uwjeff
uwjeff

Wow..........another example of the sad sad state of what was once called 'journalism' in America. Someone .....'anyone'.......simply use your head and do the math and apply a bit of logic...........we have an election result in which the victor in a 4 way primary secures 34% of the vote ......(and likely much of that 34% was made up of conservatives who simply wanted to be sure that they beat Tammy Baldwin in November)..........and somehow this signals a power shift in the Wisconsin GOP electorate !!?!?!?

TopOfCenter
TopOfCenter

Tommy might not motivate all the Tea-Partiers to turn out in November, but Paul Ryan will. Those folks will cast the "All Republican" option regardless of their enthusiasm for Thompson.

A half-enthusiastic vote counts just the same as any other.

Independent_with_Common-Sense
Independent_with_Common-Sense

Thank you, snootyelites....couldn't have put it better myself. It's amazing how those drinking the left side coolaid can't see the real power of the Tea Party: To motivate return to solid, basic founding principals.

whatistruth
whatistruth

I suspect the Mitster is having second thoughts about the marriage(no pun intended... one man...); one more sign that he does not do his homework, does not say really what he will do, and says everything to please what he thinks his audience of the day wants to hear, only to disavow it when it comes to the next appearance or through his campaign.

Ryan is not the conservative he wants you to believe... just look at his voting record in the past for massive unfunded bills that put us into the debt... "economist" indeed!

"Founding principals" is the lipstick you choose to put on the pig... but the pig did not come with it!

Your 'tea' is poisoned and America will not drink it.

But it is gonna be fun and watch... even today there is yet no really Romney/Ryan headline... hardly something to instill a sense of leadership/momentum... rather flaccid.

But there is I suppose for now some meager accomplishment of not talking about releasing the tax returns.... but for how long?

On a personal note, I suppose I do feel sorry for them... they must not be happy now that the ship is leaking.

Good Gosh
Good Gosh

Don't you believe that Tommy is the anti-Tea Party candidate. Remember how he was accused of being too "liberal"? Remember that he went to Washington to sign the Tea Party pledge of no new taxes? Like any good Republican, Tommy's pandering to the base. Doesn't matter what he really intends to do, as long as they believe he's doing what they want.

ProgressiveNow
ProgressiveNow

Remember the right wingers screaming two years ago "We must vote out career politicians". So, what do they do? Vote in a career politician! TT is as much a career politician as any of them. It just reaffirms the right winged hypocrisy this state and nation.

madtownative
madtownative

If you voted for Fred "E.T." Risser you have NOTHING to say...

snootyelites
snootyelites

This article is illogical and lacks elementary fact checking. Tommy's 34% victory signals nothing.

Hovde, Neumann and Fitzerald got significant vote. If you want to assert Tommy is the anti-Tea party candidate then he will be forced to govern with the so called Tea party watching him every step of the way. Watch him turn RIGHT faster than you can say Tea Party!

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