Wisconsin Republicans say Tommy Thompson not far-right enough for them

The Associated Press

As former Gov. Tommy Thompson weighs a possible U.S. Senate bid, Wisconsin Republicans are expressing mixed feelings about their most famous living politician.

“He’s done a lot of good things,” said Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, 44, who, along with his brother Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Gov. Scott Walker now lead the GOP and hold the reins of state government.

He added, “I think people are looking for something different.”

Some conservatives 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, is another sign of the dramatic political change in a state that will be key battleground in the national election next year.

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 opened up by veteran Democrat Herb Kohl’s retirement. 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. “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.

The only declared Republican candidate is former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, a conservative who has the endorsement of the national Club for Growth as well as DeMint. A number of other Republicans are considering making the race. One is Jeff Fitzgerald, who said he respects the former governor but thinks the party has moved on.

Others include conservative Republican state Sen. Frank Lasee and former GOP state Sen. Ted Kanavas, a businessman.

Among Democrats, the only declared candidate is U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who would become the first openly gay U.S. senator if elected.

Democrats are clearly not eager to run against Thompson. The state party circulated a video of a Tea Party gathering in Oshkosh filled with voters saying they wanted someone other than their former governor to be the nominee.