By Lee Bergquist and Don Walker
Tommy Thompson won a fierce Republican primary for U.S. Senate on Tuesday on the theme of electability, as voters agreed with the former governor's claim that he represented the best chance to win the seat in November and help the GOP regain control of the Senate.
Thompson, 70, defeated businessman Eric Hovde, home builder and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald in a primary that languished for months in the shadow of recall politics.
He now faces U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, in a race that likely will turn on the key issues of taxes, energy and health care.
The election presents voters with a sharp ideological choice that could help determine which party controls the Senate. But it could be overshadowed again by a suddenly more prominent Wisconsin narrative - the vice presidential bid of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
Surrounded by his family and overjoyed with his triumph, Thompson told his supporters, "Ladies and gentlemen, Wisconsin is on a roll."
"When it's all said and done, we're Republicans, we believe in the future," Thompson said at the Country Springs Hotel in Waukesha County. "We're going to make this country the country we always wanted to be, fiscally sound, capable of doing everything. . . . We're going to make America the best it can possibly be."
Baldwin made no direct reference to Thompson when she addressed supporters at Highbury bar in the Bay View neighborhood but said voters will have a clear choice in November.
Baldwin argued for an end to tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs and backed policies that would lead to greater manufacturing in Wisconsin.
"That's the road to a stronger middle class," Baldwin said.
Before the polls closed, Baldwin challenged the primary winner to three televised general election debates, including a debate in Wausau on Oct. 18 sponsored by Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, the Journal Sentinel and WTMJ-TV (Channel 4).
Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said Thompson is a good GOP candidate for the general election because, in the past, he had taken some more moderate positions that might appeal to independent voters.
"One would think that he's the one for whom it will be easiest to move to the middle," Heim said of Thompson. "Baldwin would have an easier time beating one of the other three because she can paint them as extreme."
In a matchup of Republicans against Baldwin in November, a Marquette University Law School poll released Aug. 8 showed Thompson performing the best. Thompson received 48% to Baldwin's 43%. Neumann and Baldwin each got 44%. Baldwin had 44% to Hovde's 41%. Baldwin does best against Fitzgerald - 45% to 40%. The results show little change since early July.
Thompson's victory is the latest in a remarkable political career - two decades in the Assembly, 14 years as governor, health secretary under President George W. Bush and then a lucrative career in the private sector.
He dabbled briefly in the 2008 presidential election.
But Thompson hasn't run for a statewide office since 1998, and a key to his primary victory was pointing to his past accomplishments while assuring voters he was the same old Tommy.
Thompson won the Senate primary despite being outspent by Hovde, a political newcomer who put more than $5 million into a campaign that took in another $500,000 in contributions, according to the Federal Election Commission.
He also was hit with attack ads from independent groups, such as the Club for Growth, which endorsed Neumann and painted Thompson as a big spender while he was governor.
Throughout the campaign, even when polls showed the race was narrowing, Thompson confidently said he was the sure bet to defeat Baldwin, reminding voters that only one politician could run on his first name in Wisconsin.
"It's a sign of trust," he told a business group in Milwaukee. "It's a sign of familiarity. It's a sign of accomplishment."
He also touted his record as governor: cutting taxes 91 times, reforming welfare and starting Milwaukee school choice, a program that uses public funds for low income students to attend private and parochial schools.
In particular, Thompson is expected to paint Baldwin as an out-of-touch free-spending liberal who supported President Barack Obama's economic stimulus.
On health care, the candidates could not be more far apart. Thompson has vowed to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, while Baldwin has embraced it.
Baldwin's defense of the program is a personal one. She tells voters that she was raised by her grandparents in Madison and, at the age of 9, was hospitalized for three months because of a bone infection. Her grandparents discovered that their insurance plan didn't cover grandchildren, which required them to use their savings to pay for her care.
With that as a backdrop, Baldwin said she grew up believing that every American deserved the right to have affordable, comprehensive health care coverage.
Hovde, Thompson's closest challenger, told his supporters that he was proud of running a campaign that informed Wisconsin voters about the challenges of United States' debt crisis.
His short political career was over, he said, and he was throwing his support behind Thompson to defeat Baldwin.
"We have to restore America, our home," Hovde said.
In his concession speech, Neumann endorsed Thompson and called on Republicans to unite in opposition to Baldwin, whom he called more liberal than Obama.
"We just have to have Tommy Thompson beat Tammy Baldwin this fall," Neumann told his supporters at a Brookfield hotel.
Fitzgerald's spokesman Steve Stanek said: "We think our campaign pointed the candidates in the right conservative direction, and hopefully they continue that."
Gov. Scott Walker called Thompson to congratulate him. He had allowed the Thompson campaign to use flattering comments Walker made recently for use in a recent Thompson TV spot but declined to give an endorsement.
The governor released the following statement after Thompson's win: "Voters in Wisconsin will have a clear choice between an extreme liberal from Madison or a proven reformer who can get us working again."
During the race, Hovde, 48, a banker and investor, portrayed himself as a fresh face and a political outsider (despite living in Washington, D.C., for 24 years until returning to his native Madison last year) with the financial expertise needed to attack the deficit and other economic problems in the Senate.
Thompson raised $3.2 million, including loans and contributions of his own of $700,000 - most of it in the waning days of the race.
Neumann raised just less than $3.2 million and made loans and personal contributions totaling $595,725.
Baldwin enters the general election campaign with plenty of money on hand. Through July 25, she has reported raising $7.2 million and has $3.2 million cash on hand. Since then, she has raised at least an additional $122,000, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Neumann, 58, appealed to tea party Republicans. He also touted his private sector credentials and reminded voters of his reputation as a fiscal hawk in Congress in the 1990s.
As the early front-runner, Thompson became the target of attacks, including from factions in his own party who said he wasn't conservative enough and pointed to the fact that the size of government grew sharply under his leadership. The Club for Growth went on the air with ads that hit both Thompson and Hovde, and all told, spent $1.7 million, a spokesman for the group said.
Thompson battled back from charges that he was a big spending governor, saying government grew for the right reasons - the state took over a larger share of schools in exchange for cost controls and it built highways and new prisons.
Thompson was the oldest candidate in the race, but his style - gregarious, plain-spoken and optimistic - continued to connect with voters.
He kicked off his campaign for Senate on Dec. 1 in Waukesha County. But he had been toying with a run for months and did the same in 2010 before deciding not to take on incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold, prompting some to compare his flirtations with another fading star, Brett Favre.
The Senate race didn't gain traction until after the July Fourth holiday. Until then, voters and the state's political machinery were geared up for the June recall election for governor between Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
The race was further squeezed by an August primary, instead of a traditional date in September. And then came the Olympics, the massacre at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek and Mitt Romney's selection of Ryan, all diverting the public's attention.