Thompson leads in Wisconsin Senate primary, but could have trouble

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson leads among Republicans in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, but more conservative candidates are creeping up behind him.

According to a Public Policy Polling poll released Tuesday, Thompson leads among likely Republican primary voters with 35 percent of the vote. But former Rep. Mark Neumann is close behind him with 29 percent, and State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is at 21 percent. State Sen. Frank Lasee trails with 4 percent of the vote.

In a head-to-head race, Thompson edges out Neumann 43 percent to 39 percent, and he beats Fitzgerald 47 percent to 35 percent. But against a generic “someone more conservative,” Thompson loses 35 percent to 51 percent. Moreover, Neumann has gained on Thompson since PPP last polled the race in May.

Indeed, among very conservative voters, who make up 38 percent of the Republican electorate, Thompson is one percent behind Fitzgerald and 7 percent behind Neumann.

The Thompson campaign, however, celebrated the poll as a victory.

“Even a poll with a flawed methodology shows Tommy Thompson wins in all matchups and with self-identified Tea Party supporters. That’s a bad sign for his opponents,” said Darrin Schmitz, a consultant to the Thompson campaign. The statement emphasized that the poll was an “auto-dial survey conducted by Democrat polling firm.”

“I expect Thompson to perform even better once he formally launches his campaign and the race truly gets underway,” Schmitz added, pointing to his high favorability rating in the state — 63 percent favorable to 23 percent unfavorable.

The Fitzgerald campaign emailed supporters about the poll, calling it “exciting news from the trail,” and saying that though it had been just two weeks since he had announced, “just today, a poll was released showing I am already gaining steam with 21 percent of the vote.”

The real risk for Thompson, PPP notes, is that “with voters that aren’t familiar with either Neumann or Fitzgerald, Thompson leads with 50% to 19% for Neumann and 9% for Fitzgerald. But with voters who do know even just one out of Thompson’s primary rivals Neumann leads with 33% to 29% for Thompson and 27% for Fitzgerald.”

Charles Franklin, political science professor at the University of Madison, Wisconsin and founder of Pollster.com, says that poses a danger for Thompson that “conservative voters in the state who may remember Thompson fondly” may swing to one of the other candidates once they learn more about them.

Franklin called Thompson a “legendary figure as governor,” and said that one would necessarily expect him to be a strong candidate, but that the eleven years that he had been out of state politics was a long time to be away.

“In the past,” Franklin said, “you would have expected Thompson entering a race to clear the field.” This time, however, there is “no indication that other Republicans are scared of him, and so they are staying in the race and getting in the race.”

Franklin noted that Fitzgerald, in particular, is choosing to “risk a very successful position in the legislature for a chance at the U.S. Senate.”

The PPP poll is based on a survey of 650 Wisconsin Republican primary voters from October 20 to October 23. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.