The Wisconsin Republican convention over the weekend saw a stunning result in the state’s other major election this year: In the vote on whether to endorse a candidate in the four-way GOP primary for U.S. Senate, former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson came in an embarrassing third place.
Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl is retiring after four terms, and Wisconsin Democrats have already united around Rep. Tammy Baldwin as their presumptive nominee.
The state GOP endorsement in Wisconsin is not the same as the convention process in Utah or elsewhere, where the nomination itself is determined. In Wisconsin’s case, though, an endorsement from the convention would give a degree of official party support to a candidate, if he or she can reach a 60 percent threshold.
On the first ballot, former Rep. Neumann took 42 percent, state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald 20.9 percent, Tommy Thompson 20.8 percent and businessman Eric Hovde 16.3 percent, the Capital Times reports. On the second ballot, after Hovde was eliminated, Neumann took 46.6 percent, Fitzgerald 35.2 percent and Thompson fell way behind with 18.2 percent — eliminating Thompson from consideration for the endorsement.
Finally, Thompson’s supporters largely shifted to Fitzgerald on the third ballot — perhaps for tactical reasons, in order to prevent Neumann from reaching the 60 percent magic number — actually giving Fitzgerald a narrow win of 51.5-48.5 over Neumann, but with no party endorsement.
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, and eventually become 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, but withdrew 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.
Now that Thompson actually is running, he has been targeted by the Club for Growth for being too moderate. Thompson must run in a Republican primary in the era of the tea party, where bucking establishment practices is rewarded and seniority is often derided.
Thompson still has one important element working in his favor: Support from the right wing could split among other candidates, giving him room to win a plurality among actual primary voters. But if nominations were decided solely by party activists, he would be out of luck.