Tommy ends his historic political run
Memo to: Tommy Thompson
What a run, Tommy, even if it ended last Tuesday with a losing U.S. Senate campaign. Very few people get to start a fifth career at age 70, after all.
Two years ago, your family told you to not run for U.S. senator. You whined but agreed. This time around, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl announced his retirement, you told your family you were in.
Still, could Tuesday’s loss have been any uglier?
The Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics says it cost at least $73.1 million, and $45.1 million of that was spent by third-party groups that trashed both candidates. When outside groups spend that much, you and the winner, Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, lose all control of your campaigns—and messages.
The campaign set Wisconsin records: Most expensive U.S. Senate race and most negative race.
On Aug. 15, the day after you won a four-way primary for the GOP Senate nomination, you were exhausted and your campaign was broke. Tammy’s campaign filled that gap by defining you in ads as someone who had sold out to special-interest groups and large corporations.
Those campaign-long ads reintroduced you—negatively—to voters. The last Marquette University Law School pre-election poll said 51 percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable impression of you—higher than Tammy’s 45 percent unfavorable rating.
What a reversal from the winning margins—58 percent in 1990, 68 percent in 1994 and 60 percent in 1998—in your three re-elections as governor.
By Tuesday’s election, those of us who had covered your four terms as governor and Tammy’s six years in the Assembly didn’t recognize either of you. Scorched-earth ads proclaimed you a 911-terrorist-attack profiteer and cast Tammy as so unpatriotic that she voted against body armor for our soldiers sent to war.
It was a last-hurrah campaign in a career that started with your election to the Assembly in 1966. Assembly service was the first step on your career ladder. For most of the next 20 years, you had a very simple goal: Being elected Assembly speaker.
Then, in 1986, you surprised everyone by winning the Republican primary for governor and, that November, beat Democratic Gov. Tony Earl. Being governor for 14 years, and getting re-elected three times, was your second career. In your concession speech, you called serving as Wisconsin governor an “awesome thing.”
You governed by compromising with legislators from both parties. You gave your aides this edict: When a legislator of either party wants to see me, get that person in my office as soon as possible.
Your personal touch with legislators from both parties meant they, in turn, had your back. They never put a bill legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons on your desk during all those years as governor, daring you to veto it.
You let the late Democratic Sen. Joe Andrea of Kenosha smuggle so much pork into budgets you signed that Andrea could have opened a stationery store with all his bill-signing pens. Former Democratic Sen. Marv Roshell got an appointment that boosted his pension, and Republicans quickly won his Chippewa Valley Senate seat.
In 2001, you resigned as governor to become secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, your third career. You had been on the job only months when 9/11 terrorists attacked. You left that job as the nation’s top bureaucrat for public health care, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the first weeks of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2005.
Between 2005 and 2011, you were a member of corporate boards and an entrepreneur, executive, influence peddler, world traveler and lecture-circuit speaker. It was your fourth career, and you said it let you finally earn money. Six years later, you were worth at least $13 million.
In your concession speech, you vowed to “not go away,” promised not to run for anything and added: “I didn’t need the job. I don’t need anything more on my resume. I’ve already accomplished more than anybody from Elroy thought I could.”
That was the grocer’s son talking, Tommy.
Another way to measure your career is this: In about 20 elections over 46 years, you didn’t have to give a concession speech, after losing a statewide election, until last week.
Correction: Last week’s column gave the wrong date for the pre-November primary election, which was Aug. 14.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email email@example.com.