Former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson filed papers on Sept. 19 that allow him to begin fundraising for a U.S. Senate bid in 2012. Thompson, along with a growing list of Republicans, is eyeing the seat being vacated by longtime Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl.
The only declared Republican candidate is former right-wing U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, but Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, state Sen. Frank Lasee and former GOP state Sen. Ted Kanavas are also weighing bids.
Among Democrats, the only declared candidate is U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, who would become the first openly gay U.S. senator if elected and the first woman to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate.
Thompson is the state GOP’s most famous living politician. He was elected governor four times before leaving the office in 2001 to serve as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.
But Thompson’s candidacy has been anything but welcomed by his party’s current leaders, who have moved very far to the right since his heyday.
“He’s done a lot of good things,” said Fitzgerald, who along with his brother Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Gov. Scott Walker now hold the reins of state government.
But, Fitzgerald added, “I think people are looking for something different.”
Some conservatives have put it more bluntly. “Sit this one out,” said Kirsten Lombard, a Madison-based Tea Party organizer active in the campaign that put right-wing candidates into office last year.
The tepid response to Thompson, who only two years ago was begged by national party leaders to run for the state’s other Senate seat, illustrates the dramatic political change that’s occurred in the state.
Rather than sweeping to victory as a returning hero, some Republicans now worry that Thompson would become part of a crowded competition with new-wave conservatives for the seat. They fear a brutal intraparty battle could damage the eventual nominee and cost the party a prime opportunity.
For Thompson, the ambivalence has left him trying to explain himself to a party he has long embodied.
“I am a true conservative and make no bones about it,” Thompson insisted in an interview with The Associated Press. “I led the conservative movement for 14 years as governor. My record is solid and complete and I’m really happy with that record and most people in the state of Wisconsin are as well.”
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.
But that’s a far cry from the state’s charged political environment today. Earlier this year, when Walker, who is far to the political right, moved to strip collective bargaining rights for state employees, he did so without a single Democratic vote.
Some Republicans clearly want more candidates who will continue to press a hard ideological line. Conservative groups like David Koch’s Club for Growth are already working against Thompson. In August the group aired a statewide television ad attacking him. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative kingmaker, recently took a thinly veiled swipe at Thompson, claiming he supported President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan – a charge Thompson denies.
Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, which courted Thompson as a candidate in 2010, isn’t calling this time. Both the Club for Growth and DeMint have endorsed Neumann.
– From staff and wire reports