Tommy G. Thompson takes part in a 2010 tea party rally in Madison, Wis. The… (Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee…)
STURTEVANT, Wis. — There was a time when Tommy G. Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and health secretary in the George W. Bush administration, cultivated a reputation as a Republican pragmatist known for cutting deals with Democrats to get things done.
That was so pre-tea party. Now 70 and trying for a comeback in a U.S. Senate race, Thompson pitched himself as an "American conservative legend" the other day as he campaigned alongside Ted Nugent, the brash, gun-toting rock hero of the political right.
Nugent fired up a rally in this blue-collar village near Racine, ripping President Obama and declaring that Thompson "will take down these politically correct, brain-dead, soulless liberal Democrats and he will cause them much pain and suffering."
Through it all, Thompson flashed a glowing smile.
Later, however, with the crowd dispersed and Nugent gone, he sought to minimize the impact of the verbal grenades. "I think in the heat of emotions, some rhetoric is said that is a little explosive," Thompson told reporters.
Moderation and its cousin, compromise, are increasingly uncomfortable sells on the Republican campaign trail these days.
It was true in the bitter battle for the party's presidential nomination, where Mitt Romney found himself running well to the right of his record as Massachusetts governor (and embracing Nugent as well). And it appears true in Wisconsin, where a GOP Senate primary is scheduled for Aug. 14.
In an election year marked by sharp polarization across the nation, Wisconsin already had earned top billing for the fierce, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by Democrats and public employee unions to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The Senate race to replace retiring Democrat Herb Kohl holds the potential for another round of ideological polarization.
Thompson is by far the best-known of four Republicans vying to take on veteran U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, who has no opposition in the Democratic primary. Based on her voting record, the National Journal rates Baldwin as one of the House's most liberal members.
Tactically, that could give a Republican rival room to maneuver to her right and still appeal to Wisconsin moderates and independents in a swing state that voted in June to retain Walker. Yet, according to polls, the state still leans toward reelecting Obama.
Increasingly, however, Republican primary voters are insisting their candidates draw ever more rigid lines on a range of issues, and not just in Wisconsin.
That dynamic contributed to the surprising GOP primary defeat in May of Indiana'sRichard G. Lugar, a mainstay in the Senate for decades. On Tuesday, it also helped propel tea party insurgent Ted Cruz to a come-from-behind victory in Texas' GOP Senate primary, defeating the hand-picked — and very conservative — choice of establishment Republicans.
In next week's Michigan GOP primary, veteran Rep. Fred Upton, the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is also defending his conservative credentials in a stiff challenge from a contender with backing from groups on the right.
As governor from 1987 to 2001, Thompson proved to be an engaging leader who saw government not as a problem but as a crucial player in advancing conservative goals, said Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the Milwaukee campus of the University of Wisconsin.
"He didn't believe in starving the beast," Lee said.
As governor, Thompson launched a welfare-to-work program that served as a model for reforms adopted by the Clinton administration. Government spending grew significantly under Thompson, and the state was typically in the top 10 of those with the highest per-capita tax burdens, according to data from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a watchdog group.
Thompson's tenure in Wisconsin coincided with an era of broad national prosperity, and he left so popular that to this day he campaigns simply as "Tommy."
By virtue of name recognition alone, Thompson is still the candidate to beat in the Senate primary. Although it is by no means a sure thing, having the anti-Thompson vote carved up three ways gives another edge to the former governor.
"The Wisconsin Republican Party is no longer Tommy's Republican Party," Lee said. "He has to selectively take from the parts of his record that show him to be a conservative. His opponents are doing the opposite."
Polls show an ever-tightening race among Thompson; hedge fund investor Eric Hovde, a political newcomer tapping his personal wealth to help bankroll an advertising barrage; Mark Neumann, a home builder and former congressman; and Jeff Fitzgerald, speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly and a close ally of Walker.
All four have been blasting each other with attack ads, often highlighting perceived ideological heresies. The tea-party-linked Club for Growth launched preemptive strikes against Thompson before he formally entered the race last year, running ads accusing him of supporting "massive tax and spending increases" as governor and later backing Obama's healthcare overhaul, accusations he denies.
Opposition to the healthcare overhaul has become a litmus test for Republicans, and all four candidates have vowed to demand the law's repeal. For Thompson, however, the issue involves an awkward pivot not unlike the one employed in the presidential campaign by Romney, who created a similar insurance mandate in Massachusetts.