For more than a decade, Tommy Thompson was the face of the Republican Party in Wisconsin. He was elected governor four times. Word that he was considering a political comeback seemed to offer the GOP the prospect of a high-profile contender for a Democratic-held Senate seat and a better shot at winning control of the chamber in 2012.
But as Thompson weighs a possible bid, Republicans here find themselves with surprisingly mixed feelings about their most famous living politician and where he fits into the party these days.
“He’s done a lot of good things,” said Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, 44, who, along with his brother Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Gov. Scott Walker now lead the GOP and hold the reins of state government. He added, “I think people are looking for something different.”
Some conservatives put it more bluntly. “Sit this one out,” said Kirsten Lombard, a Madison-based tea party organizer active in the campaign that put more conservative candidates in office last year.
The tepid response to Thompson — who only two years ago was begged by national party leaders to run for the state’s other Senate seat — is another sign of the dramatic political change in a state that will be key battleground in the national election next year.
Rather than sweeping to victory as a returning hero, some Republicans now worry that Thompson would become part of a crowded competition with new-wave conservatives for the seat opened up by veteran Democrat Herb Kohl’s retirement. They fear a brutal intraparty battle could damage the eventual nominee and cost the party a prime opportunity. This in a state where Republicans usually struggled to find any formidable candidates to run against the four-term Kohl.
For Thompson, the ambivalence has left him trying to explain himself to a party he has long embodied.
“I am a true conservative and make no bones about it,” Thompson insisted in an interview. “I led the conservative movement for 14 years as governor. My record is solid and complete and I’m really happy with that record and most people in the state of Wisconsin are as well.”
Thompson met with backers on Monday and it appears he could enter the race within days.
For much of the 1990s, the affable Thompson, now 69, epitomized the kind of Republican who could succeed in Wisconsin, with its socially moderate tradition. Before Thompson’s election in 1986, five of the previous seven governors had been Democrats.
He often governed by consensus. He got Democratic support for introducing the nation’s first private school choice program in Milwaukee in 1990 and even won over some Democrats for his overhaul of the welfare system in the mid-1990s.
But that’s a far cry from the state’s charged political environment today. Earlier this year, when Walker, a strong conservative, moved to strip collective bargaining rights for state employees, he did so without a single Democratic vote.
Some Republicans clearly want more candidates who will continue to press a hard ideological line. Conservative groups like Club for Growth are already working against Thompson. In August the group aired a statewide television ad attacking him. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative kingmaker, recently took a thinly veiled swipe at Thompson, claiming he supported President Barack Obama‘s health care plan — a charge Thompson denies.
Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, which courted Thompson as a candidate in 2010, isn’t calling this time.
A number of other Republicans are considering making the race. One is Jeff Fitzgerald, who said he respects the former governor but thinks the party has moved on. Others include conservative Republican state Sen. Frank Lasee and former GOP state Sen. Ted Kanavas, a businessman.
Among Democrats, the only declared candidate is U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a liberal from Madison who would become the first openly gay U.S. senator if elected.
Still, even those who want new blood respect the Thompson aura. Tim Dake, an organizer of a Milwaukee-area tea party group, said Thompson represented an “old style of politics” but has real stature.
“There are some people who are very excited and there are some people who are very unhappy,” Dake said. Thompson, even with the misgivings, would be the presumptive front runner if he entered the race.
Walker, a hero to many conservatives nationally, insists he’s staying out of the race but says the former governor has a “good, strong record.”
“He was a leader on school choice and he issued vetoes that saved taxpayers millions of dollars,” Walker said.
Other leading Republicans are also loathe to publicly criticize “the old man,” as some loyalists call him, but wonder why he waited so long to return. He last ran for state office in 1998, although he made a brief unsuccessful bid for president in 2007. After serving as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, Thompson has spent his time serving on corporate boards and working as a Washington-based consultant.
It’s not clear how easy it would be for Thompson to rebuild his political infrastructure. Many of the current Republican officeholders and organizers came up after he left the scene and have other allegiances.
Thompson says Wisconsin’s economic prosperity on his watch in the 1990s, when the state added 780,000, give him strong credentials for a race now.
“If you want somebody who can make things happen and change the direction, you go with people who have done it and I have done it,” Thompson said.
Democrats are clearly not eager to run against him. The state party circulated a video of a tea party gathering in Oshkosh filled with voters saying they wanted someone other than their former governor to be the nominee.
Henry C. Jackson contributed to this story from Washington.