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Jan 30 / Elizabeth DiNovella

A Tale of Two Tommys

A confident Tommy Thompson strode into the Milwaukee Press Club’s newsmaker luncheon on January 23. Dressed in a dark suit and red tie, Tommy did his best to charm the room, calling on members of the press he remembered from his fourteen years in office as governor. Time has not mellowed Tommy. He was feisty, but not quite cranky, and he fiddled with his cellphone as it went off three times before he finally shut it off.

Thompson is running in the Republican primary for the open Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl. There are four other men in the Republican primary: Mark Neumann, Jeff Fitzgerald, John Schiess, and state senator Frank Lasee.

Thompson introduced himself to a crowd that already knew him. “I’m Tommy Thompson. I grew up in Elroy, Wisconsin, where I still farm,” Thompson said. “I was governor of the state of Wisconsin, with the state legislature for twenty years, governor for fourteen years and one month.”

He then recited a litany of his accomplishments: “I cut taxes 91 times,” “I made Wisconsin more competitive,” “I traveled all over to attract jobs,” “I started welfare reform,” “even the reintroduction of elk, that was my idea.”

“But that’s yesterday,” he said, and went on to explain why he’s running now. “I believe very strongly that we have to change the direction of this country,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he stands out in the crowded primary field. “I believe I am the strongest candidate by far on the Republican side, the only candidate that has won five times statewide, four general elections, one primary and the only candidate that was endorsed by Ronald Reagan,” Thompson said. “Everyone talks about Reagan but I was endorsed by him.”

The Tea Party favorite is Neumann, who represented Wisconsin’s First Congressional district from 1995 to 1999. He lost his bid to Scott Walker in the GOP primary for governor in 2010.

Neumann has been busy racking up endorsements from national tea party and other conservative figures, such as Senators Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, and Tom Coburn. The Conservative Women’s Organization and the national Club for Growth support Neumann. (The head of the local Wisconsin Club for Growth is a pal of Thompson’s, so we’ll see if it endorses anyone in the race.)

In fact, the national Club for Growth is gunning after Thompson for not being conservative enough, creating ads questioning Tommy’s conservative bona fides.

Thompson took aim at those critics at his talk. “I started the conservative movement here in Wisconsin,” he told the room full of journalists. “Some of your predecessors wrote that I was too conservative and now you write I’m not conservative enough.”

But with such ideologues, Thompson pointed out, you can’t get anything done.

It all sounds so reasonable, this idea of people from different parties working together. But it doesn’t sound like the Tommy Thompson who gave a speech at the Celebrate Walker rally two days prior.

At a park in Wauwatosa, a quick drive from the pub, Thompson took a different tack.

“We are a red state and we are not going to let them take us back to a blue state,” Thompson said. “We are red. They are blue and when we get done they are going to be black and blue. Black and blue, ladies and gentlemen.”

Thompson has the best chance to win the primary and a good chance to win the seat. But Thompson’s black and blue remarks are a testament to how nasty the political tone has become in Wisconsin.

And it’s only the beginning of the race. The primary isn’t until to August 14.

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