Tommy Thompson "50-50" on challenge to Sen. Russ Feingold
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?
March 16, 2010; 3:19 PM ET
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