Candidates will pay a price in 2012

“If you thought the last couple of years have been bad, you haven’t seen anything yet. That’s because it’s all about Wisconsin, and in 2012, it will be an absolute bloodbath.”

That political prediction was provided over lunch to me recently by a veteran Wisconsin Republican strategist, who foresees a tumultuous, nasty primary for the GOP nomination for the soon-to-be-open U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin.

Mark Neumann and Jeff Fitzgerald are likely to split the Tea Party neo-conservative vote, the strategist said. That leaves longtime moderate Tommy Thompson to pick up the support of the old guard.

The key for the nomination, however, may be the corporate support. Much of the early corporate support, i.e. from the likes of Terry and Mary Kohler, is going for Thompson. The former governor can count on plenty of cash from the corporate boards he has served on over the years.

One of Thompson’s longtime friends told me Thompson is running for the seat – not for the money or the power or the ego – but because he truly, idealistically wants to serve and believes he can be part of the solution to find bipartisan governance in Washington, D.C.

However, before he can even have the opportunity (always one of his favorite words), Thompson must win the Republican nomination.

That won’t be easy. Today’s Wisconsin Republican Party is not the same party that elected him governor four times before he left Wisconsin to become George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services in 2001. Today’s Wisconsin Republican Party is the party of fiscal and social conservative hawks such as GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

In the 2012 campaign, Thompson will have to tamp down any references to his bipartisan credentials and consensus-building accomplishments as governor. In the past, those would have been political assets. In the 2012 primary, they are political liabilities.

Some of Thompson’s friends would prefer that he not run. His legacy could then be safely ensconced in the history books and brought out like a comfortable sweater, much the way Republicans today like to salute and quote the late President Ronald Reagan. Truth be told, Reagan, who raised taxes at least seven times during his presidency, tripled the national debt and expanded the size of the federal government, would not stand a chance of winning a primary in today’s Republican Party.

The Democrats also are “all in” when it comes to Wisconsin. They will use their petition drive to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker to create a network to vote for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin and Obama in 2012, even if they fall short of the 540,000 signatures needed to activate a gubernatorial recall.

However, will voters in places like Hortonville, Fremont, Three Lakes and Hayward vote for an openly declared lesbian from Madison for U.S. Senate?

Meanwhile, the Democrats also are likely to overturn every little rock from Thompson’s personal past.
I would say it’s going to be fun to watch in 2012, but it won’t be. It’s going to be plenty ugly and nasty. I hope the candidates and their families – on both sides – are up to it.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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