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.