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Tommy Thompson "50-50" on challenge to Sen. Russ Feingold

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is weighing a Senate race against Sen. Russ Feingold. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) is "50-50" on whether or not to challenge Sen. Russ Feingold (D) this fall and will almost certainly make a decision before the May 20 state party convention, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

"He has been in public service his entire life," said the source of Thompson's thought process on the race. "This is not something you take lightly."

It's not clear whether Thompson's current indecision is evidence of progress toward a candidacy or movement away from a run.

Feingold's campaign points out that a Thompson adviser pegged the chances of a bid by the former governor at 70 percent in a recent Politico article -- suggesting that he may be softening on the idea of running.

On the other hand, Bill McCoshen, a former Wisconsin Commerce Secretary and longtime ally of Thompson, suggested in a recent interview with the Badger State media that the former governor was moving toward a bid; McCoshen said that "this is the most serious I've seen him" when asked to compare Thompson's flirtation this time around with his mullings over the last decade of a return to elected office.

Thompson's potential candidacy is part of a concerted on the part of Senate Republicans to expand the playing field in the wake of Sen. Scott Brown's (R) victory in Massachusetts in January. Similar candidate recruitment efforts landed former Sen. Dan Coats (R) in Indiana, and Republicans are optimistic about their ability to put Washington State in play as well. Attempts to recruit a big name candidate against appointed New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have largely failed to this point, however.

A Thompson candidacy would give Republicans a big name in the race with a history of electoral success in the Badger State. Thompson was elected to four consecutive terms as governor from the mid 1980s through 2001 when he was plucked by President George W. Bush to serve as the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

It's less clear whether Thompson is the right fit in an outsider year. He has spent decades in elected office and since leaving office he has taken on a portfolio -- including his recent decision to sign on with a hedge fund -- that would be mined by Democrats to paint a picture of him as deeply out of touch.

"I've spent years and years taking on the special interests," said Feingold about the race. "And Tommy Thompson spent years taking them on as clients. That's the difference between the two of us."

It's also not immediately clear just how vulnerable Feingold is to a electoral challenge -- even in this national environment that clearly doesn't favor his party.

While Feingold seems to have the reputation as a liberal maverick, his voting record belies that image. In National Journal's 2009 vote ratings, Feingold was among a handful of the most centrist members -- ranking as more conservative than even Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (I).

And, unlike some incumbents (of both parties) who are gun shy about attacking their opponents, Feingold and his team have shown little of that to date -- regularly hammering Thompson and making clear to him that a Senate race would be a rock 'em, sock 'em affair.

"We are ready," said John Kraus who is serving as senior strategist for Feingold's re-election effort. "This will be a clear choice for voters and this is a debate will are looking forward to having."

That said, Feingold has never won any of his three past Senate races with more than 55 percent of the vote and had a solid but not awe-inspiring $3.65 million in the bank at the end of 2009.

If Thompson doesn't run, it's not clear that Senate Republicans have a plan "b" as former Rep. Mark Neumann appears committed to running for governor even though he is considered a significant primary underdog against Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

As we have written repeatedly, Republicans have only the thinnest of a chance of winning back Senate control this fall unless they can put more races in play. They deserve credit for doing just that in Indiana. But can they land Thompson in Wisconsin and find serious candidates in Washington or -- a longer shot -- New York?

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 16, 2010; 3:19 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Michael Bennet launches TV ads in Colorado Senate race


I swear, 37th, I thought this last was a scrivener post. I only realized it wasn't when I found there was no link.

Steady your bus, please.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | March 17, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who voted for Obama did something EXTREMELY IRRESPONSIBLE WITH THIS COUNTRY

This country is hurting - and it is worse and worse by the day - because the White House is IGNORING THE ECONOMY AND JOBS.

Instead, Obama, a person who really should not be in the White House, is OBSESSED WITH AN EGO TRIP TO PASS SOME LEGISLATION WHICH WILL PROBABLY BE REPEALED.

It is a joke.

All Obama is doing is creating a debate - who was worse for the country Obama or Hoover ????


People should wear "I'm sorry" stickers.

That would show everyone around them that they take personal responsibility for the disaster of Obama - and they are wiling to say "I'm Sorry."


Posted by: 37thand0street | March 16, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

Thompson is the very picture of the cigar-smoking, backroom dealing demagogue as portrayed in old political cartoons. Lining his pockets, lying and passing legislation favorable to industry, where he then jumps immediately after into a very cushy job.

I don't think so.

Posted by: drindl | March 16, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

Russ Feingold is sexy. Tommy Thompson is most decidedly not.

Posted by: cougar49 | March 16, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

I agree with bsimon and I want to add that Thompson was most successful as an executive. I would be surprised if he actually runs for the Senate, where he would be junior of 100 and in the minority [probably].

Posted by: mark_in_austin | March 16, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse


If you would care to come out into the real world you would know that Feingold voted for cloture and for the Senate HCR bill. He is now not in the picture except for whatever shows up in the reconciliation package. Republicans running against Dems with divorces make the ground their leaders walk on really squishy, since over the last half century it has been Republicans with divorces running against Dems on first marriages.

Russ is both unlikely to lose in November, and very unlikely to ever want to be President.

Thompson can run as Thompson and the T-People will gut him, or run as a wannabe T-People and the T-People will gut him.

Or he can stay home and the T-People will gut him just for the practice. Once he spoke up the rabid right has to go on the attack lest Progressivism return to the GOP.

Posted by: ceflynline | March 16, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Downside for Feingold are those two divorces and he is still single, although he could easily get the ladies' vote! Thompson is beloved, but not as spry as back when Wisconsin knew him well, and people may be shocked to see he is no longer the Tommy they knew. Russ can be ok if he votes against ObamaCare based on the sleazy way it is being run thru Congress. It gives him a chance to spotlight his integrity. If he does lose in November, he can challenge Obama in 2012 and run on Integrity or even as an Independent. He will need a wife by then, but there are no shortage of volunteers!

Posted by: cougar49 | March 16, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

According to the ad, it's this upcoming Saturday.

Posted by: DDAWD | March 16, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of red, the GOP is really going all out with those Code Red ads, aren't they? Government health care starts on Saturday?

Posted by: DDAWD
Saturday of what month and year?

Posted by: leapin | March 16, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

ceftyline, Thompson was secHHS under Bush. Perhaps you are confusing him with Tom Ridge of Homeland Security and the color chart?

Speaking of red, the GOP is really going all out with those Code Red ads, aren't they? Government health care starts on Saturday?

Posted by: DDAWD | March 16, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Russ "The Maverick" Feingold. His maverick trick is to vote opposite his party when his party is going to have a clearcut victory. Hey Russ, how about being a maverick on HC???

Posted by: leapin | March 16, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

And how will the T-People take a RINO like TT? They seem to believe in the divine right of teabaggers. They won't like a progressive elbowing out their particular Coolidge when they pick him.

Remember, the T-Party is absolutely sure that THEY will be the majority in both houses come January, and aren't going to want putative Moderates muscleing in on their turf.

Posted by: ceflynline | March 16, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

chris, it's been pointed out before, but you have to take those national journal rankings, as you like to say, cum grano salis. read this article, i think you'll not trot out the "feingold is more conservative than lieberman" meme again.,-And-Other-Observations

Posted by: IMGoph | March 16, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

This is Tommy, 64 shades of be afraid red Thompson?

Russ is too nice a guy to remind his constituents of TT's days as Color Czar.

The rest of us aren't

Posted by: ceflynline | March 16, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

The problem for Thomson is how to effectively differentiate himself from Feingold. As a Gov, Thomson was a good, rational, moderate Republican. He's not one of these teabagging drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub idealogues. Feingold, meanwhile, is also a reasonable, moderate, rational representative of the people of Wisconsin - and not the fringe liberal his critics claim.

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 16, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

God another three-chin Republican. Beat a guy like Feingold? Only in a methhead's dreams

Posted by: Noacoler | March 16, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Thompson is key to the Republicans' chances of taking back the Senate next year. Wisconsin is always a potential competitive state - espeicially in today's political environment.

Go for it.

It appears that personal considerations offer figure into these decisions - so no one really knows what is going on exactly.


Posted by: 37thand0street | March 16, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

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