By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
It was Tommy’s orders.
“We got 83 days left and I need your help. I want you to drink a beer tonight – a Wisconsin beer – and I want you to help me win this state,” a pumped-up Tommy Thompson told supporters after his victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary election.
Let’s say the enthusiastic crowd in a ballroom of Waukesha’s Country Springs Hotel rigorously followed the former governor’s directive.
My colleague, Ryan Ekvall, who covered the celebratory scene, told me he hadn’t seen so many old people lit in one room since somebody spiked the punch at Shady Acres Retirement Community.
There was a lot of drunk Jitterbug dialing.
A long-time Tommy supporter who said she had been with Thompson through most of his campaigns, all victories, asked Ekvall if he thought Tommy might lose this race — for the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination.
Ryan told the woman what so many of us thought before Thompson emerged with a 3 percentage-point victory in a crowded field of conservative big whigs: He didn’t know. He told her he thought this race would be close.
Election night results read like a boxing match between two prize fighters.
After an early knockout of Jeff Fitzgerald, state Assembly speaker and legislative shepherd of Gov. Scott Walker’s conservative agenda, and the subsequent K.O. of Mark Neumann, the former Wisconsin congressman and Club For Growth conservative’s conservative, the main event was set.
Two prize fighters remained.
The young gun, multimillionaire hedge fund manager Eric Hovde, who leads his Madison-based real estate development firm, fought as the self-funded political outsider.
Hovde used at least $4 million of his own fortune to jab hard and fast at the old heavyweight Thompson, Wisconsin’s popular, four-term governor in the 1980s and ’90s and godfather of conservative programs such as school vouchers and welfare reform.
But that was a generation ago.
Much had changed in the conservative ring since Thompson left his gubernatorial post to serve as President George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary.
The neocons. Karl Rove. The tea party.
Did this old-school conservative with a reputation for consensus building, if not down-right moderation, stand a chance against the younger, faster conservative fighters espousing the virtues of Ryan economics while railing against the proliferation of bigger-government Obamanomics?
Thompson, 70, did what he has done so many times over his 45 years in politics. He answered his doubters and detractors by winning.
Tommy’s got some years on him, but he just proved once again he has a lot of fight left in the belly. He certainly isn’t ready for the rocking chair. He says he still does 100 push-ups a day, and to prove it he recently dropped on the floor and did 50 without so much as a pant for dubious journalists.
The GOP nominee now faces off against the Democrats’ anointed — 2nd District Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin.
Baldwin, a seven-term House member from Madison, is arguably more liberal than Thompson is conservative, representing a liberal district. This is her first statewide race. She’s not tested like Tommy, but, by all accounts, Tammy’s a fighter, too.
And she has a lot of money and a lot of friends behind her bid to fill the U.S. Senate seat Democrat Herb Kohl has held since Al Gore invented the Internet.
Baldwin had raised $7.1 million as of July, 25, according to campaign cash tracker OpenSecrets.org. She has spent $4.65 million, and had $3.15 million.
Thompson raised $2.46 million, spending most of it on the primary campaign. He had $352,915, as of the July 25 report.
You can bet Thompson will have a lot more money in his war chest in the coming 80-plus days. Still, Thompson and Neumann, the two biggest fundraisers on team GOP, raised about $5.1 million combined, $2 million less than Baldwin.
Baldwin, however, would be advised to learn a lesson from Thompson’s primary rivals, who tried to sell him as long in the tooth and out of touch with modern politics — a pol that had somehow passed his prime.
They learned the hard way what the inebriated Thompson supporter told Wisconsin Reporter on primary night:
“You never doubt Tommy.”
Contact Kittle at mkittle@WisconsinReporter.com