Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin lifts GOP hopes for US Senate takeover

Before he won Wisconsin's Senate primary Tuesday, Tommy Thompson led Democrat Tammy Baldwin in a hypothetical matchup by 5 points, a poll showed. This marks the former governor's reentry into politics.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson appears at his primary election night party on August, 14, in Waukesha, Wis.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, winner of Tuesday's GOP Senate primary, will face Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a seven-term US representative, in a Senate race expected to highlight stark ideological and partisan differences, particularly on health care.

Polls show Mr. Thompson starts the head-to-head contest, which will be closely watched outside Wisconsin, with a lead over Congresswoman Baldwin. They are vying for the seat of retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat, and a Republican victory in Wisconsin could be catastrophic to Democrats' efforts to retain majority control of the US Senate

Thompson won Tuesday's four-man primary by a slim margin, taking 34 percent of the vote. Eric Hovde, a local businessman and a tea party favorite, came in second with 31 percent, former US Rep. Mark Neumann got 23 percent, and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald had 12 percent.

Thompson had flirted with a 2008 presidential bid, but decided against it. His claim to fame outside Wisconsin is as the governor who authored welfare-to-work legislation that later became the blueprint for welfare reform during the Clinton presidency. Thompson later became secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush and, in recent years, has been an influential Washington lobbyist.

Thompson has a reputation as a moderate who strikes compromises with Democrats, says Arnold Shober, a government professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

“He represents a George W. Bush version of what Republicans should be: that government is a good thing, that we don’t need to get rid of it; tax relief is good, but let’s also make government do good stuff. He compromised,” Mr. Shober says.

That was then. Pressured by at least two primary opponents with ties to the tea party movement, Thompson sought to portray himself as a hardliner. He brought in reinforcements, from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to conservative rocker Ted Nugent, to vouch for his conservative credentials and to counter accusations that he was a big spender during his four terms as governor. Thompson also pledged to vote to repeal President Obama's health-care reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“We have always in America, ladies and gentlemen, promised our children and our grandchildren that we're going to give them a country that is stronger, freer, fairer, safer, with more options than we had.… And for the first time, ladies and gentlemen, for the first time, I don't think we can fulfill that promise unless we take it back,” Thompson told supporters late Tuesday following his victory.

Baldwin supports Mr. Obama’s health-care reform law. In a statement Tuesday, she said, “Thompson will stand with those who already have too much power and influence in Washington.

Tommy Thompson would actually cut taxes for millionaires like himself while increasing taxes on the middle class, increasing out-of-pocket health care costs for seniors, increasing the cost of higher education for students and their families, and ending Medicare as we know it for future generations. That is not the America we believe in and it is not the Wisconsin we believe in,” she said.

According to a Marquette University Law School poll released Aug. 8, Thompson, of all the GOP Senate hopefuls, would do the best against Baldwin in November, 48 percent to 43 percent. 

Thompson was outspent in the race, raising $2.5 million and having $352,915 cash on hand through July 25, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, an advocacy group in Washington that tracks campaign spending. Mr. Hovde had the primary’s biggest bankroll, raising $5.5 million.

Through the same period, Baldwin raised just over $7 million and has about $3 million cash on hand.

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