While Minnesotans may find a voting booth an unexciting destination in mid-August, across the border in Wisconsin, Tuesday’s primary election holds the possibility of a higher-than-predicted voter turnout.
At least, that’s the hope of Tommy Thompson, the four-term Wisconsin governor and former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services. Thompson is one of four candidates in a tight race to secure the Republican nomination to run against Democratic candidate Tammy Baldwin for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Herb Kohl.
A higher turnout could favor Thompson, easily the best known in the Republican field. He believes the Romney campaign just handed him the key to lure in more voters with the choice of fellow Wisconsinite, Congressman Paul Ryan, as Romney’s running mate.
“It’s just the fact of all the enthusiasm,” Thompson said. “The first chance you get to show your appreciation as a Republican is to vote Tuesday.”
In a phone call with reporters, Thompson acknowledged that the primary campaign has been overshadowed. State and national media followed the recall effort of current Gov. Scott Walker with far more enthusiasm. The public attention then turned to tragedy with the shootings at the Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee. Then, on Friday, presidential politics took over with speculation about Romney’s Ryan announcement.
“It’s been very difficult for people to get centered and really understand,” Thompson said. “I think people are starting to come home. Instead of being a small turnout, it’s going to be a large turnout.”
That could happen, according to Minnesota Republican strategist David Fitzsimmons, himself a candidate for state representative. Ryan could be a plus for Thompson, he said.
“People like the hometown thing so there is an increased level of awareness of the political scene,” he said. “Even if it’s brief, you are going to have more people paying attention.”
Fitzsimmons says it’s not just that the large turnout favors the better-known candidate, it’s that these voters weren’t on the radar screen. “You have this extra group of people that you weren’t anticipating were going to be there,” he said.
These are voters, he suggested, that missed out on the attacks and counter-attacks lobbed at Thompson by his challengers, Eric Hovde, a hedge fund manager; Mark Neumann, a former congressman; and Jeff Fitzgerald, the speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly.
All three have claimed that Thompson is too moderate to serve as a Republican today. With Thompson’s long history of public service, they found plenty of quotes and votes they say support that characterization.
Thompson was forced to respond and move his campaign to the right. He is sharply critical of the new health care reform law, which he once said was a step in the right direction. He has touted endorsements from such conservatives as Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.
Now, Paul Ryan could provide him with his strongest standing on the conservative perch. Thompson said that Ryan, like himself, is “a big thinker [with] big ideas, bold leadership, bold reforms.” In the ’90s, Thompson was seen as a national leader on welfare reform and school choice, but in this campaign it proved a challenge to dust off 20-year-old talking points.
Ryan changes the dynamic, said Joe Weber, a Republican consultant who managed campaigns during the Thompson years. “It gives Tommy the opportunity to talk about himself as reformer. Tommy Thompson was a welfare reformer; Paul Ryan is a budget reformer. He can talk about that more aggressively, and that can’t hurt on Election Day.”
Of course, Thompson doesn’t have much time left to talk about anything with the polls now open. But in a race that surveys suggest is too close to call, any sliver of advantage could be enough to affect the results.