Wisconsin Republicans head to the polls today to nominate a Senate candidate, a decision in one of the nation's most-watched states that could prove crucial in the GOP's bid to win control of the Senate in November.
The competitive, four-way primary tightened in the campaign's final weeks, with former Gov. Tommy Thompson losing ground in recent polls to businessman Eric Hovde and former Rep. Mark Neumann, both of whom enjoy tea party support. State Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is running in fourth and likely to finish last, but he could factor in the contest by pulling votes from the leading the contenders. Sources said the race could be won with 30 percent of the vote or less.
"It's been very difficult for people to get centered and really understand the Senate race," Thompson said in a press call hours after Mitt Romney tapped House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate. "It's never been more apparent or more certain that Wisconsin can become the 51st vote to help the Republicans win the United States Senate."
"I just want everyone to know that I am the conservative Republican that can win in November," Thompson continued. The former governor and former Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush is casually refered to as "Tommy" by nearly everyone in Wisconsin.
Democrats and Republicans alike express confidence in winning in November regardless of who wins the GOP nomination, and electability in the general election has been a major argument of Thompson's throughout the primary campaign, which many considered his to lose based on his high name identification and popularity when in office. Rep. Tammy Baldwin is the presumptive Democratic nominee. Sen. Herb Kohl (D) is retiring.
The addition of Ryan to the national ticket has deflected attention yet again from this key Senate race, just two months after Wisconsin's political oxygen was consumed by a statewide gubernatorial recall election. Moreover, the intense spotlight on the state hasn't made today's outcome any clearer. It's just raised the stakes.
The Romney/Ryan presidential campaign rally held Sunday in Waukesha, Wis., as a part of the Congressman's introduction as the running mate only served to make for a stressful, if not awkward, last few days of the Senate primary campaign with no sure Senate candidate to showcase.
Many Wisconsin political observers previously assumed that Thompson had an unshakable base of voters. But Hovde and Neumann haven't just gained at the expense of each other, they've chipped away at Thompson's support. Neumann has much of the support of Washington's tea party class, including from organizations such as the Club for Growth, as well as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.