By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
PEWAUKEE — He stepped onto the stage late Tuesday night in front of his disconsolate and downhearted supporters and did what he always did: He talked Tommy, which is another way of saying he spoke the language of Wisconsin.
With that near-Upper Peninsula accent, thick with some 70 years of cold winter, hot summers, bratwurst and a “beverage” or two, Tommy Thompson accepted an altogether new experience for him in his beloved Badger State.
He accepted defeat.
Thompson, the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate, lost a bitter, negative ad-laden race against U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-2nd District. But there was no inflection of bitterness in his concession speech. Just Tommy talk, from a man who, until Tuesday, had never lost a statewide election in a distinguished political career that has spanned six decades.
Wisconsin’s former four-term governor who won re-election to that post handily during his record stay in the Governor’s Mansion in the 1980s and ’90s, told his supporters that he’s done with political campaign runs.
“I ran, ladies and gentlemen, and have run because being from Wisconsin is something special,” Thompson said. “To build Wisconsin, which I’ve had the opportunity to do from state legislator to governor for 14 years is an awesome thing. What I wanted to do in my last years was to serve Wisconsin, serve its people again and build Wisconsin and this country.”
Thompson didn’t speak in the fiery style to which voters grew accustomed over a long campaign that included a brutal partisan primary fight. He was reflective, subdued, suggesting that any future speeches would be delivered as a political surrogate.
While softer spoken in defeat, the Tommy tone, the rambling, colorful expressions, remained.
“I certainly didn’t need the job, and I guess I’m not going to get it,” he joked. “And I don’t need anything more on my resume, because I already accomplished more than anybody from Elroy ever thought I could,” Thompson said, the crowd laughing and cheering, his family welling up with tears behind him.
“I ran for the right reasons, ladies and gentlemen, because I care so much, just like you.”
Thompson, the Elroy farm kid who rose through the ranks of the Wisconsin Assembly over 20 years winning his first term as governor in 1986, left Wisconsin in 2001 to serve as federal Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush. Thompson, too, launched a brief run for president in 2008.
Baldwin’s campaign took aim at Thompson’s post-cabinet career as a lobbyist, painting him as a Washington, D.C., insider beholden to corporate interests. “He’s not for you anymore,” Baldwin’s campaign ads warned.
But those who know him best say Thompson remains who he always was: a moderate but innovative Republican willing to make deals and build coalitions to move policy in the direction he thought it should go.
“My father always told me, he said, ‘Tommy, you’re lucky to have five good friends that you could really count on, that would go to bat for you.’ And I look at this crowd, and my father was wrong. I’ve got thousands of friends, and supporters,” Thompson said Tuesday, as he was drowned out by applause and chants of “Tommy! Tommy!”
He ended his speech the way he’s closed so many stump talks over the years, with one last “Irish Blessing.”
“May the road always rise to meet you, and may the wind be always at your back, and may the sun shine upon your forehead, and the rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand. God love you, God love Wisconsin, and may God love the United States of America.”
With that, Thompson stepped down from the stage and onto the floor. His supporters surrounded him and waited up to 15 minutes to shake his hand, or hug him, or say “thank you.”
They weren’t just thanking him for the demanding campaign a 70-year-old man 12 years removed from a political run, a campaign that featured both candidates essentially running against a caricature of the other through a glut of negative TV advertisements. They wanted Thompson to know what he’s meant to them as the conservative torchbearer in Wisconsin for so many years.
The resonance of Thompson’s legacy remains.
“I want to thank Tommy Thompson for the good work, not just in this campaign, but you think about 14 years in leading this state,” said Republican Gov. Scott Walker, citing Thompson-led welfare and education reforms that sparked national policy change. “I think all of us, even those at home, whether you voted for him or not today, certainly owe Tommy Thompson a great deal of thanks for his commitment to this great state.”
“I was anxious to stand by his side and support him,” said Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, “because I have seen many times that he’s stood beside each and every one of us.”
Van Hollen described Thompson as a mentor, a father figure.
“He taught all of us what is right about Wisconsin, what is right about this country and certainly what is right about the Republican Party,” Van Hollen said.
The same modern Republican Party Thompson helped attacked him during this year’s partisan primary as too willing to compromise. Depending on his opponent, he was at once too liberal or too radically conservative.
“What makes you say ‘this is it’ for you?” a reporter asked him.
Thompson said it was time for someone else — Walker, Van Hollen — to carry the torch.
“I thought sure we were going to win, and I thought we were going to win easily,” he said. “I had no doubts in my mind when I woke up this morning that we were going to win the election. I was really shocked at the totals, but it is what it is and that’s why we have a democracy and that people get the opportunity to choose their leaders, and they chose and now it’s for us … to go ahead and support them, and hopefully they’ll do a good job.”
Times had changed but Thompson remained an atomic bomb of energy on the campaign trail, working a crowd through fiery speeches and connecting personally with supporters on the ground. He said the vitriol of the moneyed campaign era wasn’t in his playbook.
“Politics has just become very, very bitter and partisan and vicious, and I’m not that … heh,” he laughed, stopping himself. “You know, I thought, I thought that I could do it all, but I didn’t succeed, and now I go onto the next chapter of my life.”
One of his staffers tapped him after nearly every question, signaling it was time to go, as Thompson rambled a bit, veering off talking points and really talking. Thompson stayed put.
“As you probably know by now, I don’t spend a lot of time on preparing speeches,” he said, answering a question about his concession address. “I talk from the heart, and I did that tonight. And sometimes it comes out good and sometimes it doesn’t, so hopefully tonight people felt how much I love this country.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected].