PEWAUKEE, Wis. â" Former Gov. Tommy Thompson appeared poised for a political comeback late Tuesday as he held a modest but growing lead in a four-way Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat, setting up an ideologically divisive November battle with Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
According to unofficial returns, Thompson led his nearest rival, Eric Hovde, by 18,000 votes with more than three quarters of precincts reporting. The other two candidates had conceded.
Thompson, 70, was known as governor for his ability to work with Democrats, but he tacked far to the right in the primary in hopes of swaying tea party Republicans. The 50-year-old Baldwin, a veteran congress member from Madison, owns a liberal voting record but in past elections has won over voters in some conservative parts of her district.
Baldwin faced no primary opposition, and her presence on the November ballot is sure to elevate the contest into a national showcase. She is the first openly gay candidate to run on a major party ticket for the Senate.
Even before the primary vote was tallied, Republicans were lining up to paint Baldwin as a big-spending and out-of-touch liberal. âBaldwin is far to the left of not just President Obama, but to the vast majority of voters in Wisconsin,â read a statement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued before the GOP primary votes were even tallied.
Baldwin countered by saying all her potential Republican rivals had made it clear they would do the bidding of âspecial moneyed interestsâ over that of the middle class..
The stakes in November are particularly high for Democrats for hoping to retain control of the Senate, a crucial piece of which would be holding onto the Wisconsin seat held for a generation by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl.Recent polls show Baldwin holding her own in hypothetical matchups with each of her potential GOP rivals, including Thompson, the popular former governor and U.S. Health secretary attempting a comeback at age 70.
The Senate race will cap quite a year in the national spotlight for Wisconsin politics, beginning with a bruising but failed attempt by Democrats and organized labor to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Just days ago, soon-to-be GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney added veteran U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville to the national ticket.
The November runoff promises rich story lines as well, not the least of which will be a sharp contrast in ideas and approach between Baldwin and whichever Republican she faces. Each has jockeyed to appear the most conservative of the bunch in a play for the same tea party base that propelled Walker into the governorâs office and kept him there through the recall.
Thompson, in recent years a Washington lobbyist, was the early favorite to win the primary. But as Tuesdayâs vote approached, polls showed him in a tightening race with wealthy hedge fund manager Eric Hovde, a hedge fund manager, and home builder Mark Neumann, a former congressman.
Also on the ballot was Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, a close political ally of Walker.
As a four-term governor, Thompson amassed a broad wellspring of popularity that he clearly hoped would carry over into the Senate campaign. To woo conservative voters, he stressed his authorship of landmark welfare-to-work legislation in Wisconsin, which later served as a template for a national welfare overhaul under the Clinton administration.
But during the primary, Thompsonâs rivals attacked him for being a big spender as governor, one who was too willing to cut deals with Democrats. He also came under fire for numerous statements from his past that appeared to endorse the basic premise of the health-care reforms enacted by Romney in Massachusetts and later on a national scale by President Barack Obama.
To certify his conservative chops, Thompson centered his campaign on a pledge to deliver the decisive vote to repeal the Obama health care legislation. His campaign also immersed itself in the closing days with endorsements from icons of the right including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
He also highlighted support from conservative rocker Ted Nugent, Ohio activist and current congressional candidate Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, best known as âJoe the Plumber,â and onetime presidential contender Herman Cain, recently featured onâThe Daily Showâ pretending to be a president managing a devastating pipeline rupture by blowing a horn to summon âcreatures of the forestâ and advising all to run.