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In Wisconsin, Post-Recall Race Grabs Attention

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has some clear advantages in Wisconsin's competitive Republican Senate primary.

In Wisconsin’s Senate race, it all comes down to former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R).

With the divisive gubernatorial recall concluded, Badger State political insiders are only now pivoting their attention to the race for the open Senate seat. Observers on the ground are expecting a competitive Republican primary and a hard-fought general election. But they tend to agree that Thompson’s political fortunes could affect the outcome of both contests.

A Democratic strategist said Thompson is the candidate to beat. “All of them are going to be going after Tommy at some point,” this individual said.

Thompson’s advantages are clear.

He served 14 years as Wisconsin’s governor and then as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush. He has high name recognition and polls have consistently shown him with a high approval rating. Surveys have also shown him easily defeating the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Tammy Baldwin.

But Thompson served as governor in a different era. His record has been criticized by his detractors as too moderate to win a Republican primary.

The Wisconsin GOP convention in May was perhaps the most troubling sign for Thompson. Despite his long history of service and his frontrunner status, state party delegates voted him third out of four candidates in a contest to determine whom the party would endorse in the Senate primary.

“Tommy Thompson repositioning himself is odd and kind of a late conversion,” said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and former state legislator. “Tommy Thompson epitomizes the old wing of the Republican Party — using the government to accomplish conservative goals.”

Thompson’s GOP opponents — and the conservative activists in Washington, D.C., who also oppose him — are hoping to highlight his establishment ties to boost their candidacies.  

Observers say that much of their challenge will be to differentiate themselves from each other as well as from Thompson — and to brand themselves as the most viable conservative alternative to the former governor without splitting the vote.

Former Rep. Mark Neumann in particular has touted himself as the conservative alternative. He has received support from activists and Members affiliated with the tea party, including Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.). He also has the support of conservative groups such as  the Club for Growth.

Thompson, however, remains confident. “I’ve been and will continue to work hard, crisscrossing the state, and it’s paid early dividends with a clear advantage over the Republican field,” Thompson said Monday in an interview with Roll Call. “Yet, I take nothing for granted as this is mine to lose and mine to win.”

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