Tommy Thompson, the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history, dropped to the floor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board room last week and ripped through his morning push-up routine, as a video camera recorded a state political icon exercising in his stocking feet.
“Thompson flexes muscle,” read the headline on a video posted by the newspaper in its Aug. 8 online version. “Senate candidate, 70, knocks out 50 push-ups.”
The comeback trail for Thompson winds through a landscape foreign to a Republican accustomed to working with Democrats. The politics of confrontation now dominate Wisconsin, as Tea Party-backed Governor Scott Walker sparked and then survived a recall battle prompted by curbs on public employee collective bargaining. The state will be even more in the spotlight now that Mitt Romney has chosen Wisconsin Republican congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House budget committee, as his vice presidential running mate.
Vitality is not the issue for four-term governor Thompson, who started the national welfare-reform debate by requiring able-bodied recipients in his state to find work and served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. In Wisconsin, a state whose motto is “Forward,” the political rebuttal to Thompson and his more than 40 years of public service is “backward.”
“Tommy needs to retire now,” said Susan Corkum, who runs an art gallery in Menominee Falls, a Milwaukee suburb that is part of the Republican stronghold of Waukesha County. “I enjoyed him as governor and I have nothing bad to say about him, but we need fresh faces and voices. Otherwise, everything stays the same.”
The anti-tax Tea Party is fresh from Republican primary victories in Indiana and Texas, where establishment-backed officials were overthrown by candidates eschewing political compromise. In the Indiana race, Tea Party-backed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated six-term Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.
In Wisconsin, tomorrow’s primary for the right to fill the U.S. Senate seat of retiring four-term Democrat Herb Kohl, 77, features four conservative candidates who disagree on little.
Banker and investor Eric Hovde, 48, former Congressman Mark Neumann, 58, and State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, 45, and Thompson have pledged that after they defeat the Democratic nominee, Representative Tammy Baldwin, in November, they will go to Washington and cut taxes, balance the budget and repeal President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
While Wisconsin’s 7 percent unemployment rate in June ranked below the national jobless figure of 8.3 percent in July, the state suffered a net loss of 2,100 nonfarm jobs during the first two quarters of 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The absence of policy differences has put the spotlight on the authenticity of the candidates’ conservative credentials. That has magnified the influence of the Tea Party, which didn’t exist when Thompson left the governorship in 2001. Besides Walker, the group helped elect Ron Johnson to Wisconsin’s other Senate seat in 2010.
As governor, Thompson “was always willing to talk compromise,” said Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who served in the legislature when Thompson was governor. “The lines of communication were always open. He did not view government as the enemy. Now compromise is a dirty word. Tommy is really sort of swimming against the tide.”
Others disagree. Representative Tom Petri, who defeated Thompson in a 1979 run for Congress, said the former governor still fits in a changing Republican Party. “He’s a tough old bird, as they say,” said Petri, 72.
Thompson’s advocacy of a welfare overhaul and school choice demonstrates how Republicans in Wisconsin have “been on the forefront of new innovations for a century,” said Petri. “That continues, although the vocabulary has changed.”
Buildings in Wisconsin are named after Thompson, as is a state park. When people talk about him, he isn’t the governor -- he is “Tommy.”
“I always liked Tommy. He’s a good guy,” said Kristine Wilkins, 52, an optician from Brookfield, saying she liked his welfare changes. “And I’m probably going to vote for him.”
Thompson, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, enjoyed double-digit leads over his primary opponents in polls as recent as early July.
New measurements suggest a tight race. A Public Policy Polling survey released Aug. 9 had Hovde at 27 percent, Thompson at 25 percent, Neumann with 24 percent and Fitzgerald with 15 percent. An earlier measurement from the Marquette Law School poll had Thompson leading Hovde 28 percent to 20 percent, with 21 percent undecided.
Chuck Reimund, who runs a dog-grooming shop in Brookfield, is among those who hasn’t made up his mind.
“He did a fair to marginal job when he was in office,” said Reimund, 62, after lifting a large Airedale named Isaac into a tub for a bath. “He didn’t run us into the ground.”
Republican congressional primaries have produced other surprises this year. Representative Todd Akin defied polls on Aug. 7 to win his party’s Senate nomination in Missouri. Political newcomer Ted Cruz, with the backing of the Tea Party in Texas, defeated Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in a primary runoff to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Independent groups have spent more than $3.8 million in the race, according to the Federal Election Commission, including the Club For Growth which, along with the Tea Party, is supporting Neumann.
Thompson, who said he does 100 push-ups every day -- 50 in the morning, 50 at night -- told WTMJ talk-show host Charlie Sykes that members of the Journal Sentinel editorial board were “absolutely amazed” by his feat.
“I did it in 45 seconds. Boom, boom, boom, boom,” is how an exuberant Thompson described his performance.
Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette Law School Poll, said the volatility in the race partly reflects the inability of each of the four conservative candidates to distinguish himself from the others. Thompson’s push-ups may actually be a factor, he said.
“I’ll be interested to see if it makes him look amazingly fit or makes him look silly,” Franklin said. “I don’t know which of two ways it’ll strike voters.”