Tommy Thompson Pulls Out Win in Wisconsin GOP Senate Primary

The former governor beat back Tea Party challenges and is thought to be Republicans' best shot at capturing the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl.

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Reuters

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson won the Republican nomination in the Wisconsin Senate race Tuesday, beating back multiple conservative challengers to score a rare victory this year for an establishment candidate in a contested GOP primary.

With 82 percent of precincts reporting, the Associated Press called the race with Thompson leading businessman Eric Hovde 35 percent to 30 percent, followed by former Rep. Mark Neumann and 23 percent and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald at 12 percent.

Thompson faces Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin in the general election. The win is good news for Republicans, as Thompson was considered the GOP's strongest general election candidate thanks to his four statewide gubernatorial victories. It's a setback for the Tea Party movement, which had made Thompson the latest target in its anti-establishment crusade.

The former governor began the GOP primary as a significant favorite, but his opponents hammered him with negative television ads that labeled him a moderate and a supporter of President Obama's health-care plan. Thompson rejected the charges, pointing to some of his conservative accomplishments as governor, including welfare reform.

In the final week of the campaign, Thompson ran ads highlighting past complimentary statements from Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan -- arguably the two most influential Republicans in the state.

With minutes of the AP's call of the race, both RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and Walker gave hearty endorsements to Thompson. Both stayed out of the party primary, but they have close relationship to Thompson, who was a very popular figure with conservatives as governor.

"Voters in Wisconsin will have a clear choice between an extreme liberal from Madison or a proven reformer who can get us working again," Walker said in a statement.

Many GOP insiders predicted Thompson would become the latest victim of the string of anti-establishment upsets in GOP primaries, but the presence of three other relevant candidates led to a divided anti-Thompson vote.

Hovde, who runs a Washington, D.C., financial firm, spent millions of his personal fortune on television advertising. The first-time candidate tried to win with the same narrative employed by Sen. Ron Johnson in 2010: a conservative businessman inspired to run for office to help solve the country's pressing fiscal issues. But opponents hammered Hovde for living out of state and donating to former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

Neumann had appeared to have the late momentum headed into the primary, buoyed by a flurry of late television spending by his campaign and the conservative groups backing his campaign. The Club for Growth and Tea Party Express endorsed the former congressman, as did a host of conservative senators, including Sen. Jim DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn.

Thompson's narrow victory marks a political resurgence for the former face of the Wisconsin GOP. A general election win would be the final act in a storied political career and erase the unpleasant memory of Thompson's short-lived 2008 presidential campaign.

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Kevin Brennan covers politics for National Journal Hotline.

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