Wisconsin Senate: Thompson’s Return May Be Coming Too Late

by Stuart Rothenberg August 16, 2011 · 10:38 AM EDT

Each time a statewide election rolls around in Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s name surfaces. And each time, Thompson — who was in the GOP presidential race for just more than four months in the middle of 2007 — refuses to rule himself in or out until, finally, he announces he won’t run.

This time is different.

Barring a last-minute change of heart, Thompson, a four-term Republican governor who served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, is about to enter the state’s 2012 Senate race.

But while Thompson would seem to be a formidable contender, a closer look suggests he won’t have an easy time winning the GOP nomination against a well-funded primary opponent.

A new Club for Growth poll shows how much of a challenge Thompson will face.

The club has already made it clear it doesn’t like Thompson (though it has no preferred alternative at the moment), so the fact that its survey raises questions about his ability to win his party’s nomination isn’t surprising. But dismissing the group’s poll would be a serious mistake.

The survey was conducted by Jon Lerner of Basswood Research, who conducts much of the Club for Growth’s polling. Lerner is highly regarded by political insiders, many of whom have found his surveys to be accurate and his analysis devoid of ideology or wishful thinking.

The July 26-27 survey of 500 respondents “with a history of voting in GOP primary elections” found Thompson with good name recognition (his “hard” name identification was 86 percent, meaning those respondents not only knew his name but had an opinion about him) and a “favorable” rating of 68 percent.

Only 18 percent of respondents had an “unfavorable” view of the former governor, giving him an impressive favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of just less than 4-to-1.

But Thompson’s favorable rating is uncomfortably “soft,” at least compared with two current GOP statewide officeholders tested in the survey. While Thompson’s “very favorable” poll number was a mere 26 percent, recently elected GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s was a much stronger 46 percent and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s was a stunning 61 percent.

It isn’t surprising that Thompson’s favorable rating would be soft, even among Republicans, because he left the state’s top elected office almost 10 years ago. But it is noteworthy that open-ended responses to the question of which issues or actions respondents associated with Thompson produced few positive responses. (Among those who responded, more than a third could identify nothing, while 13 percent could only say he is a former governor.)

When matched in a hypothetical race against former Rep. Mark Neumann, who hasn’t announced his candidacy but is widely mentioned as a potential candidate, Thompson had a very narrow and uncomfortable advantage of 40 percent to 34 percent. Neumann, of course, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1998 and unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010.

While Thompson’s favorable name identification was 68 percent, Neumann’s was just 37 percent. Yet Thompson could get to only 40 percent in the ballot test.

The Club for Growth poll also included a series of “message testing” questions, sometimes called “push questions” (which have absolutely nothing in common with “push polls,” which are not polls at all). The questions provided information about the former governor and asked after each one whether respondents would be more or less likely to support him.

The questions included various bits of information about Thompson’s past support for higher taxes and kind words for “Obamacare.”

A second ballot test conducted after the “push questions” showed Thompson’s support had collapsed, with the former governor now trailing Neumann 40 percent to 22 percent.

Push questions in early surveys are of limited value, of course, because they present only one side of the story and focus respondents on just a few issues that might or might not be the crucial issues or factors that determine an election’s outcome.

In this case, however, the results reinforce the conclusion that Thompson’s support is shallow and raise questions about the former governor’s ability to survive a seriously contested primary.

Wisconsin Republicans know Thompson’s name and have a positive impression of him. But they really don’t know why, and when presented with negative information about him — information that isn’t far-fetched and that can be documented — they turn on him quickly.

One veteran GOP operative who is not yet involved in the race but has considerable experience in the Badger State told me that Thompson can be nominated only if “nobody who can put two nickels together runs against him.”

“Even Republican donors who supported Tommy in the past and might support him again are unenthusiastic about him running for the Senate next year,” the operative said. “He is yesterday’s news, and his comments on Obamacare will kill him. Plus, he’s a pre-Internet candidate. He’ll tell groups whatever they want to hear, even if their views are diametrically opposed. You can’t do that these days.”

Not surprisingly, supporters of Thompson disagree. They argue that while some national conservative groups have it in for Thompson, the former governor has plenty of support among state conservative and tea party groups.

One longtime Thompson ally portrayed the former governor as a tax-cutting, job-creating, veto-wielding cutter of spending, citing a litany of specific examples that the campaign could use to remind primary voters of his record.

“We aren’t naive here,” the Thompson ally said. “We know things have changed politically, and we welcome a debate challenging his conservative principles.”

But as a four-term governor, Thompson had to deal with the political realities of the day, and opponents surely will focus on some of the compromises and statements he made along the way. His chances of winning a primary would improve if the conservative vote is fractured among a number of hopefuls.

No matter who wins the GOP primary, Republicans are upbeat about their prospects.

Some are already speculating that former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) will opt to challenge Walker in a 2012 recall election rather than try to return to the Senate, leaving the Democratic Senate nomination to Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who would be the clear favorite in the primary absent Feingold.

Baldwin, who represents a south-central Wisconsin district that includes the very liberal city of Madison, is almost certain to run for Senate. Her record is liberal, though her understated style and message of “fighting for the middle class” should have some appeal throughout the state.

Last week’s recall elections in the state proved that Republicans were as energized to support Walker as Democrats were to fire him. All indications are that 2012 will be a close, hard-fought election in the Badger State. And that will make each party’s Senate nomination valuable.

Can Tommy Thompson win the GOP Senate nomination in Wisconsin next year?

One Wisconsin Republican observer put it this way: “It would be an ugly and difficult primary, but I think Thompson would still win it.”

Others are far more skeptical. They argue that he can be nominated only if everything were to break just right for him. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Thompson faces a tough climb in a political environment that looks far from ideal for him.