By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
Waukesha – In the end, it was Tommy.
While the early favorite may have been knocked off his pedestal in recent weeks, Tommy Thompson on Tuesday showed his three younger competitors why he’s still the man in Wisconsin politics, securing Wisconsin’s GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.
“We are taking back America,” Thompson told a crowd of rowdy supporters in Pewaukee during a classic Tommy animated acceptance speech.
He now faces 2nd District Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in November. The Madison Democrat did not face a primary opponent in the race for the seat being vacated by long-serving U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee.
Thompson, the 70-year-old former four-term governor, got an early scare from Madison businessman and political upstart Eric Hovde. But as the night progressed Thompson’s lead was just too much to make up.
He beat Hovde by about 18,000 votes, winning by 3 percentage points — 34 percent to 31 percent, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Doubted by detractors who asserted Thompson’s time in politics has passed, the former Health and Human Services secretary under George W. Bush pushed back, asserting that he still had a lot of fight left.
“And then ladies and gentleman, people doubted whether or not I had the stamina, so I had to do 50 pushups, and I was going to come down here and do that tonight but the results took too long,” Thompson said, a nod to the pre-primary workout he did in response to a challenge.
The contest quickly turned into a two-man race Tuesday night, with state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, lagging far behind and bowing out early in the night, followed by former 1st District Congressman Mark Neumann.
Hovde, a multimillionaire hedge fund manager and real estate developer who dumped at least $4 million of his fortune into the race, conceded with about 80 percent of the vote counted.
It appears it’s one political race and done for the Senate candidate who pushed a Washington, D.C. outsider image throughout the campaign.
“This is the end of my political career,” Hovde told a crowd of crestfallen supporters in Waukesha. ”Sadly, it didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.”
Hovde told Wisconsin Reporter that politics was never his goal in life.
“As I said in my speech, I ran because I am so profoundly concerned about the direction of our country, and you know, I’ve never had an aspiration to be a politician. In fact, frankly, politics largely – like most Americans – I’ve been disgusted by how our politics have operated over the past 20, 30 years.
“It hasn’t been since Ronald Reagan where I’ve really had someone inspire me and operate government in a clean and a professional manner.”
The race seemed anything but clean in recent weeks, with the three frontrunners — Thompson, Neumann and Hovde — hitting each other with a barrage of attack ads.
Fitzgerald, with relatively little money, played nice and lost by double digits.
Thompson had a healthy lead earlier in the year. Polls showed that lead shrinking in recent months, as the governor — known as a leading national conservative a generation ago for his work on vouchers and welfare reform — had to fend off an onslaught of attacks from the far right.
The veteran campaigner rolled out a lineup of Tea Party stars — from Ted Nugent to Herman Cain to Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher — to punctuate his conservative credentials.
Tommy v. Tammy
Now he prepares to face off with one of the more liberal lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
Baldwin is known as a fighter, too.
In 1998, she became Wisconsin’s first female elected to Congress, and the nation’s first openly gay challenger elected to Congress.
Tuesday afternoon, hours before a winner was declared, Baldwin challenged the winner to three debates.
The differences are distinct in this contest, as Baldwin pointed out.
“Tonight, the Republican primary electorate presented Wisconsin voters with a clear choice for the November election,” she said in a statement. “Make no mistake, Tommy Thompson will stand with those who already have too much power and influence in Washington.”
Thompson countered that he’s ready for the fight, but noted he’s got his eyes on a bigger prize. He said he spoke with Wisconsin 1st District Congressman Paul Ryan before taking the stage for his victory speech. Ryan, just picked as presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate, told Thompson they were “taking the state back,” according to the Senate candidate.
“We are going to send Barack Obama back to Chicago,” Thompson crowed. “And let him become a community organizer once again — a job he may be able to handle.”
The former governor pledged to balance the budget, but the first step is to pass one – something Senate Democrats have not done in more than 1,200 days.
“But before we pass the budget and balance it, we’ve got to have a vote to retire (Sen.) Harry Reid,” Thompson said, referring to the Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader.
The Wisconsin Senate seat could play a pivotal role in deciding whether Republicans or Democrats control the U.S. Senate next year. The GOP needs to pick up four seats to gain the majority.
The Wisconsin seat is one of 10 toss-ups, as determined by the well-respected Cook Political Report, which tracks and analyzes political races.
Still, for all of its significance, the contest has operated largely under the radar — overshadowed this past weekend by the Ryan announcement and by months of competing for the public’s attention during Wisconsin’s unprecedented recall elections.
Joe Heim, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said Thompson’s name recognition and record carried the day for the hard-driving politician.
“I’ve always thought that Gov. Thompson has benefited by this whole scenario. His name was well known. He really didn’t have to campaign that much. He was well respected,” Heim said.
Despite the bitterness of the campaign, Thompson said there would be no hangover of hostilities. His opponents quickly pledged their support.
“Because when it’s all said and done, ladies and gentlemen, we are Republicans,” he said. “We’re going to make this country the country we’ve always wanted it to be: Fiscally sound, capable of doing anything.”
Wisconsin Reporter’s Kirsten Adshead and Ryan Ekvall contributed to this report.