After 46 years in politics, will Wisconsin’s electorate ask of Tommy Thompson who are you?
To appropriate Israeli politician Abba Eban’s historic quote about the Palestinians, it can be said that former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The father of welfare reform and four-time gubernatorial winner in a state whose political environment was more blue than purple at the time, Thompson seemed like he was destined to advance on the national stage. A presidential run in 1996 or 2000 would not have seemed a far-fetched idea. Instead, Thompson made a quixotic bid in 2008. Likewise, Thompson could have easily sought the U.S. Senate back home, with even conservatives hoping he’d run as recently as 2006 or 2010. Instead, at 70 years of age, Thompson has bet on a political return after a 14 year electoral absence.
And for the moment, it’s a bet that Thompson is winning. Despite an expensive and bruising primary against three other strong candidates, Thompson narrowly emerged the victor. But after facing a self-funding primary opponent in Eric Hovde, Thompson enters the general election with a $3 million to $350,000 deficit against Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Worse for Thompson, the double-digit polling lead he held as recently as May has turned into what Real Clear Politics averages out to basically a tie. And this against the most liberal member of the House of Representatives according to National Journal‘s Vote Rankings. Baldwin isn’t merely blue, she’s downright phthalo.
Some of the factors weighing down Thompson’s numbers are easy enough to spot. Thompson has been attacked from the Right for more than a year – the Club for Growth was airing anti-Thompson ads as far back as August of 2011 and spent $1.7 million on the race. The result may not have been a Thompson primary loss, but the ads definitely turned Thompson’s approval/disapproval numbers upside down, 43% to 39%. And Baldwin hasn’t been simply waiting for the Republican primary to end to start her campaign as she’s already spent $4.6 million preparing the November battlefield.
But the largest factor holding back Thompson is himself. A man who first came into office in 1966 is poorly set to capture the zeitgeist of an electorate that has tired of career politicians. And while Wisconsin voters are less inclined to vote Democrat, as was the case in 1986 when Thompson was elected governor, they’ve also become less inclined to cross party lines in their voting habits. Thompson’s blue-collar appeal that helped him win in union strongholds like La Crosse or Green Bay doesn’t mean as much when union households (or any other reliable Democrat constituency) will no longer even consider voting for someone with an ‘R’ next to their name.
None of this is to suggest Thompson can’t win. In fact, he may already be slightly ahead as a Marquette poll has him up 5%. That’s a far cry for a former governor whose lowest re-election percentage was 58% and still a distance away from a race that looked in the bag merely months ago.