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Thompson’s Return May Be Coming Too Late

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Each time a statewide election rolls around in Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s name surfaces. And each time, Thompson — who was in the GOP presidential race for just more than four months in the middle of 2007 — refuses to rule himself in or out until, finally, he announces he won’t run.

This time is different.

Barring a last-minute change of heart, Thompson, a four-term Republican governor who served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, is about to enter the state’s 2012 Senate race.

But while Thompson would seem to be a formidable contender, a closer look suggests he won’t have an easy time winning the GOP nomination against a well-funded primary opponent.

A new Club for Growth poll shows how much of a challenge Thompson will face.

The club has already made it clear it doesn’t like Thompson (though it has no preferred alternative at the moment), so the fact that its survey raises questions about his ability to win his party’s nomination isn’t surprising. But dismissing the group’s poll would be a serious mistake.

The survey was conducted by Jon Lerner of Basswood Research, who conducts much of the Club for Growth’s polling. Lerner is highly regarded by political insiders, many of whom have found his surveys to be accurate and his analysis devoid of ideology or wishful thinking.

The July 26-27 survey of 500 respondents “with a history of voting in GOP primary elections” found Thompson with good name recognition (his “hard” name identification was 86 percent, meaning those respondents not only knew his name but had an opinion about him) and a “favorable” rating of 68 percent.

Only 18 percent of respondents had an “unfavorable” view of the former governor, giving him an impressive favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of just less than 4-to-1.

But Thompson’s favorable rating is uncomfortably “soft,” at least compared with two current GOP statewide officeholders tested in the survey. While Thompson’s “very favorable” poll number was a mere 26 percent, recently elected GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s was a much stronger 46 percent and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s was a stunning 61 percent.

It isn’t surprising that Thompson’s favorable rating would be soft, even among Republicans, because he left the state’s top elected office almost 10 years ago. But it is noteworthy that open-ended responses to the question of which issues or actions respondents associated with Thompson produced few positive responses. (Among those who responded, more than a third could identify nothing, while 13 percent could only say he is a former governor.)

When matched in a hypothetical race against former Rep. Mark Neumann, who hasn’t announced his candidacy but is widely mentioned as a potential candidate, Thompson had a very narrow and uncomfortable advantage of 40 percent to 34 percent. Neumann, of course, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1998 and unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010.

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