Now that Tommy Thompson has stated he will make an announcement about his political future at the state GOP convention next month, fervid discussion about the impact of a Thompson gubernatorial bid has ensued.
For the Dems, the disadvantage of Thompson tossing his hat into the race for governor is clear—he would be a far tougher opponent for Jim Doyle than Mark Green.
However, the effect of a Thompson gubernatorial bid on the GOP is less straight forward. While it would be great for moderate Republicans in the state, it would be a major setback for the vocal far right that has been controlling the direction of the state GOP in recent years.
Since Thompson left the governor’s mansion, the far right fiscal wing of the GOP (or "the fire-breathing tax-limiting fiscal conservatives," as esteemed member Charlie Sykes calls them) has made some significant headway into the Wisconsin GOP establishment.
As a result, bipartisan legislation such as the ethanol bill has gone up in flames. TABOR and now the revenue amendment have been fiercely pushed. State Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer was ousted and replaced with the more fiscally conservative Glenn Grothman. And the election of Scott Walker in traditionally Democratic Milwaukee County was certainly a major victory, while the birth of groups like Americans for Prosperity and Citizens for Responsible Government has helped to provide a centralized and financial base for operations.
There remains, however, an obvious tension in the state GOP between the far fiscal right and those who consider themselves more moderate Republicans.
The strife is best highlighted in the continuing debate over whether to constitutionally restrict public revenue in Wisconsin
Staunch fiscal conservatives—who dominate AM talk radio around Milwaukee and the right side of the Wisconsin blogosphere—view the revenue amendment as the preeminent legislative issue. But as the legislative woes of the amendment make clear, moderate Republicans disagree.
And as the authors try to make the amendment more moderate, if only in perception, they are beginning to lose support from the more extreme in the GOP ranks. This is the same tightrope walk that defeated TABOR, and it looks like it’s bringing down the revenue amendment, as well.
The far fiscal right, unsurprisingly, holds a great deal of contempt for Tommy Thompson. Many refer to him as “the King of the RINOs (Republican in Name Only)” because he proudly used government to address state issues, which is contrary to the far fiscal right’s view that a Republican should govern by diminishing the influence of government.
The problem for staunch fiscal conservatives is that Thompson remains an extremely popular figure among the majority of Republicans in Wisconsin.
A poll by Strategic Vision last month showed that Thompson would win handily if he joined the Republican gubernatorial primary. Taking into consideration only Republican respondents, Thompson came away with a whopping 63% of the vote, while Mark Green had only 14% and Scott Walker (who was still in the race at the time) was left with just 7%.
This suggests that while staunch fiscal conservatives have had a strong impact on charting the course of the state GOP agenda in recent years, in terms of numbers they are still notably smaller than the moderate wing of the party.
If Thompson were to actually enter the race for governor, it would be a major setback for the staunch fiscal conservative wing of the state GOP. Once Thompson trounced Green in the primary, it would demonstrate that most people who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party in Wisconsin aren’t all that keen on reducing the size and influence of government in the state. And if Thompson would get back into office, it would effectively put the control of the party’s direction back into the hands of the moderate wing with Tommy at the helm.
Granted, Mark Green doesn’t exactly have a strong record as a staunch fiscal conservative. But what separates Green from Thompson is political power.
Green has relatively low name recognition in the state right now, and he had even less when he started his campaign. If he wants to get his name out there, at least in a positive light, it’s easiest to do so by riding the wave of the party—which, at present, is being chartered by the vocal far right fiscal conservatives—to keep from capsizing his political aspirations. The same is also true for Scott Walker.
Thompson, on the other hand, has enough broad moderate Republican support in all parts of the state to change directions without worrying about rocking the boat too much.
The concern among the far fiscal right that directions would be changed if Thompson joined the race is palpable. As fiscal conservative ringleader Charlie Sykes concluded in his recent op-ed about a possible Thompson gubernatorial bid: “There’s been a changing of the guard, even if Tommy hasn’t yet gotten the memo.”
Although it’s not necessarily likely Thompson will join the gubernatorial race, it would be great for the moderate majority of Republicans in the state, while it wouldn’t be at all good for the far right in the GOP.
It would also make for one heck of an interesting next seven months and beyond for state politics.