Updated December 29, 4:30 p.m. ET
It’s shaping up to be a big new political year in Wisconsin, with the Democratic effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. But on the Republican side, a whole other battle is brewing in a different race — with the makings of a big Republican primary — for Senate.
And as of right now, there is really a two-way primary: Tommy Thompson versus…the Club for Growth.
Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl is retiring in 2012, after 24 years in office. The presumptive Democratic nominee for the race is Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who represents Madison and the surrounding counties.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, a big primary is shaping up between Tommy Thompson, the former four-term Governor and Bush administration Secretary of Health and Human Services, and a wider cast of characters. Most notable among his opponents are former Rep. Mark Neumann, who has the backing of the Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), plus state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who is pitching himself as a Washington outsider.
Fitzgerald is also the candidate who is the closest to Gov. Scott Walker, having helped to pass Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-public employee union legislation, in the midst of an environment of massive protests and the beginnings of the recall campaign. By contrast, Thompson has been largely out of the state’s political scene — and Neumann ran against Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, in an attempted comeback after his own narrow loss in the 1998 Senate race against Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold.
The primary is also a long way off — all the way in August 2012. Although it is obviously early, polling of the primary has shown Thompson ahead, but with a plurality rather a majority, over a divided opposition — suggesting that he could be vulnerable.
Thompson has had a long and successful career in Wisconsin politics, but has not been on a ballot since 1998. He was first elected to the state Assembly in 1966, eventually becoming the Republican minority leader. He was elected governor in 1986, then re-elected in 1990, 1994 and 1998, before joining President George W. Bush’s cabinet in 2001. He left the cabinet after the 2004 election, and briefly sought the Republican nomination for president in 2007, only to withdraw after a poor showing in the Ames Straw Poll.
Thompson was long courted by the GOP to run for Senate in various cycles, but never made the jump — he came very close in 2010, but ultimately backed away.
And now that he’s in, the Club For Growth has him right on their target list, attacking him as a moderate or even liberal Republican. Indeed, even before Thompson got in, the Club was already on TV attacking him.
“Club members and economic and fiscal conservatives are strongly behind Mark Neumann in this race. Mark Neumann was one of the strongest, most pro-growth members of Congress when he served. And the Club is going to make sure that he has the resources he needs to be the Republican nominee,” Club spokesman Barney Keller told TPM.
“And we intend to aggressively educate voters on Tommy Thompson”s record of supporting Obamacare, and of massively raising spending and taxes when he was governor. And we think the more Republican voters know about Tommy Thompson’s record, the less likely they’ll be to support him.”
Keller also made clear that the Club will go full bore in taking on Thompson: “By the end of this primary, not a single Republican voter won’t know that Tommy Thompson supported Obamacare, and supported massive tax and spending increases. And anything Tommy Thompson says is just a distraction from his failed record of supporting higher taxes and spending.”
The Club’s “Obamacare” attack on Thompson is based on a series of positive statements that Thompson made about the topic of health care reform in 2009 — most notably, a pair of joint statements that Thompson and former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt released in October and November 2009 — the latter just as the Senate was about to vote on beginning formal debate on the bill — offering some qualified praise to the Senate health care bill, and calling for a bipartisan consensus on the issue. The earlier statement in October also said: “Failure to reach an agreement on health reform this year is not an acceptable option.”
However, Thompson was not solidly on Obama’s side, either. In October 2009, he appeared on Fox News with Neil Cavuto, saying he was not for passing the bill in its current form, and he criticized Democrats for using his image in an ad attacking Republicans for not backing the proposal. He also harshly criticized the law right after its final passage.
Looking back on the controversies in June 2011, as he was gearing up to run, Thompson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “There’s no question I worked to get a bipartisan bill. I think we needed health care reform,” said Thompson in the interview. “I worked on that. I was sad that in the end, they skewed left to a place I couldn’t support.”
Neumann does have a connection to the Club — their executive vice president Chuck Pike is a former Neumann chief of staff. However, Keller denied that this connection played a role in the group’s endorsement: “No. I think that anybody who looks at Mark Neumann’s record in Congress would see that he is far and away — he was one of the people that was standing up against Republican spending from the beginning.”
When asked for response to Keller’s comments about Thompson, the Thompson campaign gave TPM this statement from campaign consultant Darrin Schmitz:
“It’s no secret that Mark Neumann’s former employees now work at the Club and are directing the attacks against Tommy Thompson. Neumann infuriated Republican voters and conservative activists with the smear campaign he ran against Governor Scott Walker. A slash and burn campaign run by Neumann’s DC surrogates against Tommy Thompson will backfire on him.
“Conservative bloggers in Wisconsin went so far as to write the Club to point out Neumann’s lack of character and the shameful campaign he ran against Scott Walker.
“Thompson’s record of 91 tax cuts, eliminating the inheritance and gift taxes, and cutting the income tax rate three times is powerful. His welfare and school choice reforms were models for the nation and conservative victories, and Republican voters know he created jobs and Wisconsin flourished under his leadership. Thompson’s strong record and good will with the base won’t disappear because of lies from Mark Neumann and his DC attack dogs.”
The Neumann and Fitzgerald campaigns did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment.
ed. note: This post originally said that Wisconsin’s Senate primary would be in September. In fact, the state just recently passed legislation changing the date to August, in order to comply with federal deadlines related to sending and receiving ballots of overseas and military voters.