Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin campaigns in Milwaukee. (Dinesh Ramde / Associated…)
PEWAUKEE, Wis. — Four conservatives squared off in a Republican U.S. Senate primary here Tuesday, but it’s the Democrat whom one of them will face come November who figures to transform the battle for an open seat into a national showcase.
Tammy Baldwin, a veteran congresswoman from Madison who had no primary opponent, would become the first openly gay member of the staid upper chamber if she won.
That may seem a risky calculus for Democrats hoping to retain control of the Senate, a crucial piece of which would be holding onto the Wisconsin seat held for a generation by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl.
But recent polls show the liberal, engaging Baldwin holding her own in hypothetical matchups with each of her potential GOP rivals, including Tommy Thompson, the popular former governor and U.S. Health secretary mounting a comeback try at the age of 70.
The Senate race will cap quite a year in the national spotlight for Wisconsin politics, beginning with a bruising but failed attempt by Democrats and organized labor to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Just days ago, soon-to-be GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney added veteran Janesville Rep. Paul Ryan to the national ticket.
The November runoff promises rich story lines as well, not the least of which will be a sharp contrast in ideas and approach between Baldwin and whichever Republican she faces. Each has jockeyed to appear the most conservative of the bunch in a play for the same tea party base that propelled Walker into the governor’s office and kept him there through the recall.
Thompson, in recent years an influential Washington lobbyist, was the early favorite to win the primary. But as Tuesday’s vote approached, polls showed him in a tightening race with wealthy hedge fund manager Eric Hovde and home builder Mark Neumann, a former Wisconsin congressman. Also on the ballot was Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, a close political ally of Walker.
As a four-term governor, Thompson amassed a broad wellspring of popularity that he clearly hoped would carry over into the Senate campaign. To woo conservative voters, he has stressed his authorship of landmark welfare-to-work legislation in Wisconsin, which later served as a template for national welfare reforms under the Clinton administration.
But during the primary, Thompson’s rivals attacked him for being a big spender as governor and too willing to cut deals with Democrats. He also came under fire for numerous statements he gave up until a few years ago seeming to endorse the basic premise of the healthcare reforms enacted by Romney in Massachusetts and later on a national scale by President Obama.
To prove his conservative chops, Thompson centered his campaign on a pledge to deliver the decisive vote to repeal Obamacare. His campaign also immersed itself in the closing days with endorsements from icons of the right including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Also highlighted was support from conservative rocker Ted Nugent, Ohio activist and current congressional candidate Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, best known as “Joe the Plumber,” and onetime presidential contender Herman Cain, recently featured on"The Daily Show" pretending to be a president managing a devastating pipeline rupture by blowing a horn to summon "creatures of the forest" and advising all to "run."