The Club for Growth takes out its Tommy gun

Worried that a once popular governor with a federal resume that includes serving as a cabinet secretary could derail their plans to install another hard-right U.S. Senator, the Club for Growth has fired a shot across Tommy Thompson’s bow in hopes of undermining him among Republicans. They rolled out an online anti-Tommy ad this week featuring President Obama and you can watch it here:

“Wisconsin Republicans should recruit a pro-growth conservative to run, not recall some big-government, pro-tax Republican whose time has come and gone,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said. (So how do you like them Apple Jacks, Cap’n Cruch?) But Chocola is with the national group. The WISCONSIN Club for Growth began looking for some distance pretty quickly, saying “While WICFG does not intend to issue statements or offer opinions regarding the positions of candidates for U.S.Senate, we recognize Governor Tommy Thompson’s significant contributions to improving Wisconsin’s economy and reforming government. Governor Thompson served the citizens of Wisconsin with distinction for fourteen years.”

Frankly, I found the ad pretty tame and pretty lame. I’m not sure that it would be a big consideration for me, if I were Tommy Thompson. But it does underline a problem that Republicans have and it’s that they’ve had a shrinking tent over the past few years when it comes to candidates who can pass their ideological litmus tests. Only a single-digit percentage of eligible voters are likely to cast ballots in Wisconsin’s GOP primary in the late summer of 2012, but it’s a hurdle that a Republican candidate must clear to get on the general election ballot.

Senator Kohl’s announcement that he plans to retire at the end of his term leaves the Republicans with the opportunity to try to paint another statewide office red. Kohl has held the seat for four terms. His ability to self-fund his campaigns and avoid the visceral negative reactions that more aggressive partisans can sometimes engender made him a safe bet. It’s hard to bash on a fairly low-key guy that is known as much for being a friendly philanthropist and successful businessman as anything else – not to mention the fact that trying to outspend him has never been a practical strategy.

Tommy Thompson is a fairly moderate fellow when he is compared to the current standard-bearer for Wisconsin Republicans, Gov. Scott Walker. Rumors have been rampant for months that the two don’t get along all that well. As the story goes, Thompson may feel that Walker has gone too far in pushing his agenda on a state that is really not as red as the current representation indicates. The Club for Growth, on the other hand, is all about pushing the Walker agenda (or maybe it’s all about Walker pushing theirs.) Embarking on a pre-emptive strike against someone like Thompson is vintage Club for Growth style. (It seems it’s not so much like a club that you join as it is like the kind that you swing):

Personally, I kind of like Tommy Thompson. I’m not saying that because I would necessarily support his candidacy, but just as a matter of fact. He was elected to four terms as governor and Walker may be lucky if he’s able to complete four years. Thompson governed as a moderate and if there’s one thing today’s GOP can’t stand, it’s a moderate. In addition to his ability to compromise, Tommy also had a great touch with people of all stripes. He was governor for so long that just about everybody who had even a passing interest in politics had some personal experiences with Thompson during his long career. While Walker has buttoned up the capitol and he sneaks in and out of media markets with closed-to-the-public events for credentialed media and supporters, Thompson and his staff would play softball games in local communities when they took government on the road.

Tommy was truly gifted at remembering people. A couple of months after he took office as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in the Bush Administration in March of 2001, I ran into him in Washington DC, where he was speaking at the annual National League of Cities conference. He was only too happy to meet with some friendly faces from back home. It was clear that the Bush people had tried to remake Tommy with a new wardrobe and hairdo and frankly, the guy looked uncomfortable in his own skin early on.

Happily, he reverted to the more familiar Tommy within a few months. It was a good thing, because there really is no reason for Tommy to try to be anything that he’s not — a small town lawyer who became a legislator in his 20s and worked his way up. I ran into Thompson again in late August 2001 on a flight out to DC and he was back to looking like the Tommy we all knew. I was impressed when he not only recognized me, but also sent a follow-up note. Barely three weeks later, he was completely consumed with the September 11 attacks, along with the rest of the Administration.

Tommy has said more than once that he thinks he has one good race left in him. In 2008, he explored a possible Presidential run. It was a weak rollout and something he’s probably not sorry he abandoned early on, since it was a Democratic wave year anyway. Thompson then toyed with the idea of running against Sen. Russ Feingold last year, but announced he would not at the April 2010 Tea Party rally at the capitol. The ultra right crowd received him poorly and the event ended up being the launching pad for the candidacy of now-Senator Ron Johnson. Almost a year earlier, he had talked about a run for governor in 2010 and he had floated that idea just a couple of days after Walker announced. Walker and Johnson are Club for Growth boys. Thompson is not. It might be the same old Tommy, but it it’s not the same GOP.

A former Amtrak chairman, Thompson held out an olive branch by carrying some water for Walker when the governor-elect was turning down more than $810 million in federal high-speed rail funds. (The grant included $150 million in funding that Walker recently failed at trying to recover from the feds for the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago. That’s about 20 years worth of the estimated state cost to operate the Madison-Milwaukee leg rejected by Walker; the money that the guv said he was trying to save.)

It’s still too early to tell how 2012 will shape up, but the summer recall elections may provide a bit of guidance and waiting until things shake out with that would still provide plenty of time for a very long campaign. The chips could fall in such a way that the old Thompson-Feingold matchup rumored a bit over a year ago could come to pass under an entirely new scenario.

If it turns out that Walker sent some GOP state senators out to fall on their swords over his uncompromising, radical right wing agenda, then Thompson may have far more steady ground to trot out a more middle-ground candidacy. But if he balks again, then the combination of pushing 70 years old and being a serial rumor instead of a bonafide candidate may finally mean that Tommy Thompson’s long and successful career in public office actually ended when he left Washington in 2005.


UPDATE:  August 17, a day after the last Wisconsin recall election, Tommy Thompson reads the tea leaves and announces that James Klauser and J.B. Van Hollen will co-chair his committee for a potential U.S. Senate bid. On the same day, Public Policy Polling release shows the rift in the GOP between moderates like Tommy and the hard right:

Stay tuned!


5 Responses to “The Club for Growth takes out its Tommy gun”

  1. This post gets at the primary issue that republicans will have in any statewide election in the near future.

    Wisconsin is clearly a purple state, no democrat or republican has the numbers to win with the party faithful alone and to get victory, they must convince the independent voters to take their side.

    In order for a republican to win in a statewide election and steal the independents away from the dems, that republican has to be more moderate.

    However, moderate republicans will never pass the party muster and survive the primary.

  2. Maybe Thompson should run as a Democrat, and bypass the right-wing-nuts entirely.

    • Ed Hammer Says:

      Problem here is that Tommy is not a Democrat. We’d end up with a right wing nut running against a conservative lobbyist. Not a good choice for moderates and real Democrats. Could be the lesser of two evils, but I guess I’d like to see a candidate who holds some of my views.

      • some of my views…

        heck, right now I would be happy to see a candidate who holds at least one of my views…


  3. That’s probably not a winning strategy, as former Senator Arlen Specter could tell us. On the other hand, going Independent a la Senator Joe Lieberman, might be an option.

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