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In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson’s Struggle to Break Through

TAMPA, Fla. – From a stage looking down on a beer and brat fest to fete Wisconsin, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the man of the hour, gave the state’s GOP Senate candidate, Tommy Thompson, a shout-out.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am about Wisconsin, how proud I am about our leaders that have stepped up in Wisconsin. You’re going to help us send Tommy Thompson to the United States Senate so Harry Reid is no longer Majority Leader,” Ryan shouted to a large tent filled with beaming delegates.

While Ryan praised him, Thompson waved to try to get his attention and that of the Badger State’s delegates as well, but to no avail. The former governor and cabinet head was blocked by a large crowd of people as he hastily walked in moments before Ryan’s address, and the audience was otherwise transfixed by the vice presidential nominee.  

The moment seemed to perfectly encapsulate the Wisconsin Senate race to date: In a state with a booming national influence, the all-important contest that could determine control of the Senate has been an afterthought.

But Republicans can’t afford to neglect Thompson’s race against Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D), despite recent polls showing him up by as much as 9 points, and Thompson’s time in Tampa shows just that.

Though a campaign spokesman declined to release an official schedule, multiple GOP sources in the state said Thompson’s trip to Florida reflects his pressing need to fundraise. He held a fundraiser on a yacht here Wednesday that was headlined by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn and a handful of other GOP Senators.

A brutal four-way primary has left Thompson with only $353,000 in cash on hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission disclosures. The former governor has raised approximately $2,367,000 to date while spending nearly $2,112,000 and chipping in $100,000 of his own money.

“The biggest question in my mind is whether or not there’s going to be adequate resources for Tommy to get his message out,” Walker, clad in a Green Bay Packers polo, told a gaggle of reporters at the brat fest. “Right now, coming off a primary, there’s still a little bit of gap – as there often is after a primary. Congresswoman Baldwin has poured, is pouring, tons of money into ads almost exclusively about attacking Tommy Thompson.”
Walker continued by finding a political silver lining in the money gap and barrage of negative ads, adding, “I think that’s a sign that they recognize that they’ve got nothing. If they run on Tammy Baldwin’s record, they’ll never win in the state of Wisconsin.”

Earlier this month, Thompson won just 34 percent of the GOP primary vote, narrowly defeating two tea-party-backed opponents. He faced a multiple-front attack from conservative groups challenging his connections to President Barack Obama’s health care law, his time as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and even his age. The conservative Club for Growth alone spent nearly $550,000 against him.

Thompson said he thinks Republican voters in Wisconsin have coalesced around his candidacy.

“I would say that 97 percent of the Republicans are supporting me,” he said. He called his race “one of the top three Senate races in America,” along with Ohio and Virginia.

A Wisconsin delegate who attended the closed-press boat event said the former governor emphasized his continued vigor, despite attacks to the contrary from his much younger primary opponents just weeks ago.

“That he’s virile!” exclaimed Trish Schaefer, a 46-year-old resident of Sun Prairie, Wis., when asked what Thompson’s message was.

Though he expresses the confidence of a candidate with broad name recognition and a long political career, Thompson has been making moves in the weeks following his primary that belie an acknowledgement that a campaign shakeup was necessary.
On Aug. 18, he hired a new campaign manager, Keith Gilkes, who ran Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial race. A source familiar with Wisconsin Republican politics indicated that the campaign is currently in transition, with significant staff changes being made.

Throughout the primary, even the most passionate of Thompson’s supporters expressed concern that he was not running an aggressive and modern campaign – a flaw that proved fatal in other primaries, such as in Indiana. With the Senate majority potentially hinging on Wisconsin, Thompson needs to ramp up his efforts in the general to secure the open seat that many believe is his to lose.

“What kind of campaign will he run? Is he going to sit back and wait for the votes to roll in or is he going to go out there and pull out the stops?” a Wisconsin Republican operative unaffiliated with Thompson or any of his former primary challengers asked. “It remains to be seen.”

Top Republican officials prioritizing winning Wisconsin for the Romney-Ryan ticket likely will favor Thompson, although the presidential race also threatens divert attention and resources away from his bid. National and local operatives of both parties concede that a potential Obama-Thompson voter is much more likely than a Romney-Baldwin one.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who hails from the Badger State, said this week that he does not see his national responsibilities, or Ryan’s, impeding the party’s plans to win the Senate race at home. He highlighted the field advantage Republicans have in Wisconsin, gained largely in the historic effort to recall Walker, as one of the party’s top weapons in trying to sweep the ballot.

“We’re also going to have a massive turnout operation in Wisconsin. There isn’t a state in the country that I think – now I’ve got a lot more intimate knowledge of this – [has] more data on voters than Wisconsin. Tommy is going to benefit from the massive ground operation there and the turnout operation.”

Thompson said he plans to attend several meetings this week in Tampa. He did not confirm further public appearances, although the boat fundraiser held Wednesday also had a separate space for Wisconsin delegates to attend cost-free. He seemed unconcerned about the competition in his race.

“It’s absolutely probably one of the most classic differences of philosophy and positions and vision for America of any two candidates ever running for the United States Senate,” Thompson said.

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