U.S. Senate Candidate Profile: Tommy Thompson


Former Gov. Tommy Thompson says he’s the only candidate with the breadth of experience necessary to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. His supporters agree, but recent polls show Thompson with only a very slim lead over his three opponents.

Thompson, or “Tommy,” as most of his supporters call him, is running on his record as a four-term governor and a former secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. World War II Navy veteran Jerry Stern of Pewaukee says it’s Thompson’s combination of state political leadership and federal government experience that inspired him to come out to a Thompson rally in Brookfield last weekend. “He knows his way round Washington, and I think this is a real plus because he knows how to handle these politicians in the Washington scene, and therefore you put this package together and I just feel very strongly that at this point in time Tommy’s the man that we need to go with and support.”

Another Thompson fan at the Brookfield rally, David Karst of New Berlin, echoes Stern’s reasons for backing the former governor, “Why I’m a Tommy supporter is because of him being governor for four terms and creating 740,000 jobs, [and] I think 91 different tax cuts. We need somebody like Tommy that knows the system and can go in and get the job done right away. He is a conservative.”

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Thompson’s stump speeches during the campaign hammer repeatedly on his length of political experience and his conservative credentials. At a stop in La Crosse this week he defended himself against charges from his opponents that he’s not conservative enough. “I am the only candidate that has asked for an 18 percent ceiling on expenditures and revenues. No Democrat or Republican has ever asked that. That’s the most conservative plank out there. We started welfare reform. The only entitlement program we’ve ever gotten rid of. No other conservative has ever done that. I would dare to say that what we started here in Wisconsin was the start of the Conservative movement across the United States.”

But the Marquette Law school poll released Wednesday (8/8) makes it clear that self-identified conservatives are still divided on which of the four candidates in this race are true conservatives. Investment banker Eric Hovde, realtor and builder Mark Neumann and state Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald each get the support of almost equal numbers of those voters who self identify as very conservative. Political Scientist Charles Franklin is the poll director: “Neumann gets 30 percent of that vote, Hovde 33 percent and Fitzgerald a respectable 18 percent. Here you see, when we’re dividing the anti-Thompson vote, if you will, we’re dividing it three ways. It splits so evenly it doesn’t give much of an advantage to either Hovde or Neumann or Fitzgerald.”

Franklin says while this poll reveals a lot about how ideology is factoring into people’s voting preferences, it’s impossible to make any reliable predictions about the result because a hefty 20 percent of likely voters in the poll are still undecided. Tommy Thompson has his own theory about why so many voters haven’t made up their minds yet, and it’s another mantra he repeats in his stump speeches. He blames it on the election fatigue caused by the recall attempt against Gov. Walker in June. “After June 5th, everybody says, ‘I want to take the summer off, I’m tired of campaigning, I’m tired of giving, I’m tired of volunteering, I’m tired of watching commercials on television, I want to go enjoy this beautiful Wisconsin summer.’ And that’s what’s taken place. Now people are starting to focus on this race. I think it’s going to be a small voter turnout and that’s why every vote counts.”

Despite the closeness of this primary, the Marquette poll shows Thompson as the only Republican candidate with a lead over Democrat Tammy Baldwin 48 to 43 percent. Neumann is tied with Baldwin, Hovde trails her by 3 and Fitzgerald trails her by five.