Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson won a hotly contested four-way primary Tuesday to secure the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate against Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who could become the first openly gay person elected to the upper chamber this November.
The Associated Press called the race for Thompson around 10:30 p.m. Central Time. The former Bush Cabinet secretary fended off challenges from self-financed hedge fund manager Eric Hovde and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, with State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald trailing the top three.
Thompson polled most competitively against Baldwin in the field of four, although his lead shrunk over time. According to a recent Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS poll, Thompson is tied with Baldwin among voters. The dynamic of the contest is likely to change in the coming weeks, now that the Republicans have settled on a nominee after a hard fought primary.
Perceived as the establishment Republican choice, the former four-term governor’s selection breaks a pattern of Tea Party upsets in Senate primary contests this cycle including Indiana, Texas and Missouri. Thompson, 70, and Baldwin, 50, will compete for the seat being vacated by Senator Herb Kohl, a four-term Democrat, in a contest that could determine which party controls the Senate.
Baldwin portrayed Thompson as a political insider in a statement released by her campaign after the vote.
"I will fight to do what’s right for the middle class and Thompson will put those at the very top and the big monied special interests in Washington ahead of Wisconsin’s hard working families," she said. "I will take on these powerful interests in Washington, and in the Senate, I will stand up for Wisconsin’s middle class, as I always have."
The Republican governor Scott Walker survived a recall attempt this year in Wisconsin, and the state is home to Congressman Paul Ryan, the Tea Party favorite selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Baldwin has still posted strong fundraising numbers, fueled by a national progressive profile and the historic nature of her campaign. She would be the first woman elected to represent the state in the Senate, and the first openly gay senator, distinctions that have earned her endorsements from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and LPAC, the new super PAC dedicated to lesbian visibility in politics.
The contest is expected to turn on the economy. Democrats seized on the Thompson victory to draw sharp contrasts with Baldwin, a seven-term congresswoman from Madison, based on the candidates’ economic visions.
“This is a very good night for Tammy Baldwin,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Guy Cecil in a statement. “Tonight’s results provide Wisconsinites with a crystal clear choice between a fighter for the middle class like Tammy Baldwin and a self-serving multi-millionaire like Tommy Thompson who would cut taxes for the rich and pay for it by raising taxes on the rest of us, ending Medicare and privatizing Social Security.”
Thompson, a former Health and Human Services Secretary, won a Republican field that overwhelmingly opposed key LGBT priorities. He departed from the others by not supporting a federal marriage amendment to ban same-sex marriage. In 2007, he told a presidential debate that he believed employers should be able to fire employees for being gay, but he quickly retracted the statement and later blamed his answer on a faulty hearing aid and flu symptoms.