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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 4.0° F  Fair
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He's baaaack: Tommy Thompson survives the right-wing purge
Right-wing Republicans thought they'd make short work of Thompson.
Right-wing Republicans thought they'd make short work of Thompson.

With his narrow victory on Tuesday, Tommy Thompson proved that neither the national tea party organization, nor a rich opponent, nor a year of relentless attacks by the Club for Growth associating him with ObamaCare could overcome old-style, hail-fellow-well-met politics in Wisconsin.

"I want you to drink a beer tonight," the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate declared in his acceptance speech.

That's our boy.

"Judging by his hammered acceptance speech, I'm not sure Tommy Thompson fully grasps campaigning in the age of YouTube," Twitter user @wi_defender quipped.

There is something charmingly humanizing about Thompson's win, and all the good memories of a less divisive political era that it conjures up.

Sure, our once-progressive state is now mainly famous for Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan and his plan to destroy Medicare. And our union-busting, education-gutting governor survived a genuinely grassroots recall effort by raising more money than any state politician in history, mostly from out of state.

But the radical right-wing machine that has been bulldozing teachers, the elderly, poor kids and the entire middle class slipped a gear when it took on Tommy.

When the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history woke up from a nap and decided to run for the Senate, the right-wingers who had taken over his party thought they'd make short work of him. Republican politics in Wisconsin got a lot meaner since Tommy last held office.

This is no longer the era when the head of the statewide teacher's union and the governor get together to cut deals, as they did in Thompson's day. This is the tea party era. Republicans like Tommy are nearly extinct.

Thompson did, in fact, praise Obama's health care reform and, more importantly, launched BadgerCare to provide health insurance to thousands of low-income parents and their children all over the state. And unlike the current breed of right-wing Republicans in Wisconsin, who love to bash the idea of a railroad line connecting Milwaukee to Chicago and Minneapolis and turned away $800 million in job-creating federal stimulus funds to do just that, Tommy served on the board of Amtrak and proudly advocated a high-speed rail line connecting Wisconsin to Illinois and Minnesota.

A Republican who supports infrastructure and health care for the poor? Heresy!

Former Congressman Mark Neumann, the free-market fundamentalist, and his former staffers at the national anti-tax group Club for Growth took out after Tommy with a vengeance.

To stay in the game, Thompson was reduced to running against his favorite programs -- trains and health care -- and doing his best imitation of a tea party stalwart. No one was fooled.

It seemed, for a time, as if Neumann's campaign of destruction would help win the Senate race for Eric Hovde, the attractive but relatively unknown hedge fund manager from Shorewood who lived most of his adult life in Washington, D.C.

Club for Growth ran ads against Hovde, too (not radical enough). But Hovde's money and his endorsement by the tea party PAC gave him a temporary edge.

Especially when Hovde made an expensive ad buy during the Olympics and boosted his poll numbers to make the race a tie, Tommy's days seemed numbered. But he survived.

Don't get me wrong. If Thompson wins the general election against Tammy Baldwin -- polls show them neck in neck right now -- he will no doubt cast some awful votes with his Republican colleagues in the Senate.

But at least Tommy's win shows that the coalition of big money and radical right-wing politicians like Paul Ryan is not invincible.

Thompson made a point of saying that both Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker had called to congratulate him. "We took our state back on June 5," when Walker survived the recall, he declared. "Now we're going to take our country back!" The crowd at his victory party began chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

"U.S.A. is right!" Tommy shouted back, ready, as ever, to join the party.

Somehow it all seemed pretty benign.

"Paul Ryan is fixated on the debt. Tommy doesn't have that same fixation," explains veteran Republican politician Melvin Laird. Laird served nine terms as a Wisconsin Congressman and was President Nixon's defense secretary. "There's a little difference there between Tommy and Paul. Tommy understands you have to compromise more."

From where we now stand, politicians like Laird and Richard Nixon seem like great liberals. Nixon's universal health care plan was far more progressive than Obama's Affordable Care Act. And in Congress, Laird had a reputation for working across the aisle on the defense and health care committees. "I really believe that what we have to do is work together," he says.

Nostalgia only gets you so far, of course. Thompson is busy remaking himself for the new era.

Stanley Kutler, historian and author of many books on Nixon, offers a good perspective on the shifting winds of politics and the Republican Party.

When he was invited to speak at the Nixon library (over the outraged objections of a few Nixon diehards on the board), Kutler says he wandered into the gift shop, where he found a mug with the logo "What Would Nixon Do?"

"I know what he'd do," Kutler says, laughing. "He would try to become a leader of the tea party."

So is Tommy.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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