Tommy Thompson opponents say he isn’t conservative enough

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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A decade ago, if Tommy Thompson had entered a Senate race in Wisconsin, the Republican primary would have been over. But when the state’s only four-term governor announced his candidacy for the Senate on Thursday, he was met with a barrage of attacks claiming that his record was not conservative enough.

“With Thompson, you have a governor whose positions were certainly seen as conservative at the time he took them,” explained University of Wisconsin, Madison professor Charles Franklin. But those positions, staked out more than eleven years ago, “may not look conservative [anymore],” he said.

Two Republican candidates in the primary are running to the right of Thompson: former Wisconsin Rep. Mark Neumann and State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has yet to do much campaigning, as the state assembly is still in session, but Neumann is already actively positioning himself as the true conservative in the race, and has garnered endorsements from Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The day Thompson announced, the Club for Growth — also a vocal Neumann supporter — released a press release attacking his conservative credentials, and pointing specifically to statements that he made in support of President Obama’s health care reform law.

“Tommy Thompson joined hands with the labor unions, [Democratic Rep.] Tammy Baldwin, and President Obama to pass the largest expansion of government-run health care in a generation,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola in the release.

The release focuses on Thompson’s membership on the board of America’s Agenda, a group whose website touts that its “health reform campaign had the privilege of making substantial contributions to shaping and winning passage of this historic health insurance reform law,” and lauds the passage of the law as a “breakthrough.”

The Club for Growth points out that members of America’s Agenda include a number of labor unions. It also points to various statements that Thompson made praising the health care law.

Darrin Schmitz, consultant to Thompson for Senate, points out that “Mark Blum, America’s Agenda executive director, said Thompson never endorsed the health-care law (Obamacare).”

According to a report in the Examiner in May, “In October 2009, as the Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the health care bill, Thompson and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt issued a joint statement praising the legislation as another important step toward achieving the goal of health care reform this year. They wrote: It moves us down the path of providing affordable high-quality health care for all and expanding coverage for millions. While expressing some concerns, Gephardt and Thompson warned, failure to reach an agreement on health reform this year is not an acceptable option.”

Schmitz dismissed the Club for Growth attacks.

“Mark Neumann’s former chief of staff and top fundraiser now work at the Club, and they’re orchestrating the attacks and lies on Governor Thompson,” said Darrin Schmitz, consultant for Thompson for Senate. “Neumann has a history of tearing down fellow Republicans like Scott Walker and Tommy Thompson to promote himself.”

“Neumann came under fire from conservatives in Wisconsin for the smear campaign he ran against Scott Walker. Neumann is hiding behind his former employees at the Club and letting them do his dirty work for him. Their attacks will backfire badly on Neumann,” Schmitz added.

Club for Growth Spokesman Barney Keller fired back, saying “Tommy Thompson will say and do anything to district from his record of supporting ObamaCare, but the fact is that the public record exposes his support for the largest expansion of government run health care in a generation.”

The ex-governor’s support for the health care overhaul could be a “potentially potent issue against Thompson,” said Franklin, but he cautions that Thompson “can probably fairly say that his support was not as open-ended as some of his opponents want to make it sound. He will say he thought it was time for health care reform, but that didn’t mean he embraced all the parts of the reform that passed.”

Brian Schimming, the first vice chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party and a former member of the Thompson administration, echoed that sentiment.

Thompson is “very much a market-based guy,” said Schimming. “He was for reform, there’s no doubt about it. He wasn’t for Obamacare. He isn’t for Obamacare, and he never has been. Is he for reform? No doubt he’s for reform. But he’s not for Obamacare.”

“Tommy Thompson publicly stated his opposition Obamacare long before it passed, and he’s called for the law to be repealed and replaced with market-based solutions. The Club’s attacks are totally false,” said Schmitz.

Keller disputed that, telling TheDC: “Tommy Thompson served on the board of an labor-backed organization that paid former Democratic leader Dick Gephardt to lobby for passage of ObamaCare. He stayed on the board of the organization after the passage of ObamaCare. To this day, the organization lists Thompson, President Obama, and Tammy Baldwin as its endorsers. Tommy can run, but he can’t hide from his record of standing with Barack Obama and his allies in big labor to pass ObamaCare.”

The biggest issue for Thompson, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report, could be his absence from state politics since 1994.

“Campaigning has changed a lot,” Duffy pointed out, adding that moreover, “there’s a whole generation of voters who never voted for him and don’t really remember his tenure.”

The question will be, “does he run the kind of campaign that you run in 2012, as opposed to 1994?” she said. “And then of course you’ve got the whole ideological angle.”

Duffy said that “in the last two cycles … ideological purity got a little more important than electability.” If that trend continues in 2012, then it could be problematic for Thompson.

For Franklin, the primary sets the stage for a battle between the old and the new within the Republican Party.

“It signals a battle between Thompson and the modern conservative movement in the Republican Party,” said Franklin. “It’s going to be Fitzgerald versus Neumann, who are both clearly to the right of Thompson, with Thompson trying to say, ‘I’m conservative enough but I’m also a get-things-done operator who wants to really solve problems, not just talk about them.'”

“The strongest critique” of the former governor, said Franklin, is “how the state government grew under Thompson.”

“He may have been a conservative, but he was a big government conservative, with the state taking on more spending for more programs, even if it was spending money for” programs favored by conservatives, Franklin said. For instance, in pursuit of school choice, an issue popular among conservatives, “Thompson increased the state’s share of K-12 school funding,” Franklin noted, adding that this was also in pursuit of decreasing property taxes in the state.

Another attack that has come up against Thompson is his position on stem cell research, on which opponents say he has flip-flopped.

In 2006, the late David Broder of the Washington Post described Thompson as an “outspoken advocate of stem cell research.” But in November, he addressed a conference organized by the Vatican supporting stem cell research that did not use human embryos.  (RELATED: Democrats’ embryonic stem cell strategy hits scientific wall)

“Thompson believes the science has moved on. As a pro-life Catholic, he has always sought to protect new and existing life. He fully supports adult stem cell research, which does not require the destruction of embryos and has yielded new advancements in regenerative therapies,” said Schmitz.

But for all that, Thompson has a lot going for him. He is still quite popular in the state — a Public Policy Polling poll found him with a 63 percent approval rating.

“People look at him a different way in this state,” said Schimming, who said he is a Thompson supporter.  “He’s kind of an institution in the state, and one that people like,” he added.

Even though Thompson has been out of office for so long, Schimming argued, he’s still very well-known in the state. “If you step back and think about it, if you were anywhere into your mid teens, you knew who Tommy Thompson was,” Schimming said. “And while he may have been out as governor, he’s still got tons of recognition from being in the Bush cabinet … you’re not going to go out and find a bunch of 25-year-olds who don’t know who the guy is.”

“Tommy Thompson was one of the best politicians and governors the state has ever seen, so for anyone to underestimate his ability to sense what the electorate wants — he’s just proven time and time again that he has that ability,” said Brett Healy of the MacIver Institute, a conservative Wisconsin-based think tank.

“Unless he’s lost his touch, he has always had the ability to seize on an issue that no one else realizes is important to your average citizens and he’s been able to capitalize on that sort of stuff,” Healy added.

Thompson is also seen as the most electable candidate in the general election.

“I ran into a very prominent Democrat the other day, who knows Wisconsin politics as well as anybody I know on that side, and … I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘[If] Tommy gets through the primary, it’s over,’” recounted Schimming.

“They’re going to try to attack him on that, and stem cells, and go at him every way they can,” said Schimming, but Thompson has a “unique way of being very up front with people of how he was on issues. They’re going to need a lot more than that to beat him.”

Thompson’s position as a beloved institution in Wisconsin, Schimming said, would cause attacks to harm the attacker.

“That is essentially, in this state, saying Tommy Thompson’s a liar, and that is not going to go over well in this state,” he said.

Thompson’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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