In some ways it should be no surprise that the ultraconservative Club for Growth is going after former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who appears to be gearing up for a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Herb Kohl.
The D.C.-based advocacy group, which most recently spent millions in Wisconsin on issue ads opposing Democrats in the recall elections, has made it a habit in recent years to oppose moderate Republicans who don't follow its free-market, anti-government script.
But it is still a bit startling that the group started running attack ads against the iconic former Wisconsin governor in late August even though Thompson has not officially entered the race and the Republican primary is still a year away.
"I think it is pretty remarkable," says Barry Burden, a political science professor at UW-Madison. "It tells me something is at stake here. Conservatives in the party are really concerned about Tommy winning the election. They are trying to head off his really owning the nomination at this point, and I think that's why they're in so early."
Thompson, who was elected to an unprecedented four terms as governor, appears invincible to many Wisconsin residents, says Burden. Club for Growth and its allies, he adds, are likely concerned that once Thompson starts building a campaign organization and raising money, the nomination "will be his for the taking."
Burden says the group's preemptive move highlights the split within the Republican Party in Wisconsin and elsewhere. "The Republican Party that Tommy Thompson belongs to is not the Republican Party that is running Wisconsin," he says. Burden notes Thompson supported inner-city high-speed rail, cooperated with public unions and, in recent years, backed President Barack Obama's health care plan.
The latter, says Burden, is a "killer" among GOP faithful now.
In fact, Thompson's support of what critics call "Obamacare" is a central focus of the ads Club for Growth has been running on Fox News since Aug. 24. Club for Growth communications director Barney Keller won't disclose the total amount spent on the ads, which will run through Sept. 2, but he calls it a "substantial cable buy."
"If you watch Fox News in Wisconsin," he says, "it's very likely you're going to see them."
Keller says his group took a look at Thompson's record and found it did not mesh with Club for Growth's belief in limited government. "A lot of Republican governors elected in the '80s and '90s started off doing a lot of positive things, but once they were in office for a while they became more pro-tax and more pro-spending, and I don't think Tommy Thompson is an exception to that rule."
Jim Klauser, a longtime Thompson aide and co-chair of his campaign committee, has come to Thompson's defense, writing a sharply worded letter (PDF) to former congressman Mark Neumann, who announced Monday on Charlie Sykes' radio show that he is seeking the Republican nomination for Senate. Klauser accused Neumann of being behind the Club for Growth ads and "lying" about Thompson's record. "I understand that several of your former employees are well placed at the 'Club,'" Klauser wrote.
"Evidentially they don't understand any better than you do Ronald Reagan's commandment." Reagan famously advised Republicans never to speak ill of another Republican.
When asked - twice - whether Neumann was behind the ads, Keller deflected the question, saying only that no one in the Thompson camp has disputed any of the content in the ads and that Klauser is trying to distract attention from the "facts" in the commercials.
"The facts are that [Thompson] supported massive spending increases, he supported tax increases, and he supported Obamacare. And neither Tommy Thompson nor any of his cronies have ever disputed any of those facts."
Days after this interview, the political action committee for the Club for Growth endorsed Neumann. "Club members and Wisconsin Republicans looking for a fiscal conservative and pro-growth champion to send to Washington have a perfect candidate in Mark Neumann," said Chris Chocola, president of the club.
Bill Kraus, who ran Republican Lee Dreyfus' successful bid for the governor's office but now counts himself a "former Republican," says that the attacks from Club for Growth "could be a big asset to Tommy" if it keeps Thompson from abandoning "the middle where he was so eminently popular for so long."
"One of the great assets in politics is a good enemy, properly used," adds Kraus, "and Tommy is smart enough to know how to use them."
Kraus notes the tea party candidates in the recent recall elections in Wisconsin did not fare well at the polls and says the question for Thompson is whether he could get through the primary with his moderation intact.
Thompson, who served as secretary of health and human services under President George W. Bush, has already distanced himself from Obama's health care plan. He told a Milwaukee television anchor on Aug. 8 that he never supported it. "I'm a supporter of improving health care with my ideas," Thompson said. "I really tried to get people to work together. Since when is that a sin?"
Kraus says Scott Walker's victory cannot be used as proof that Wisconsin has moved to the far right. Walker did not talk about his collective bargaining measures during his campaign, and he rode into office atop the national wave that swept conservative candidates into power across the country.
"I still think we are a moderate state," says Kraus. "We really haven't been tested."
This Senate race could certainly test that hypothesis. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), who was a key legislative player behind Walker's budget cuts and union-weakening measures, also said this week he would run for Kohl's old seat. In an editorial board meeting with the Wausau Daily Herald, Fitzgerald might as well have called Neumann and Thompson has-beens, saying they had been out of politics for a long time and that "politics has changed" since they were in office.
"People are sick of politicians who say one thing and then vote another way," Fitzgerald said. Sounds much like the criticism Club for Growth has been throwing Thompson's way.
Burden notes there was a time when Republicans and Democrats were happy just to have one of their own win office. But now they're looking for ideological purity, and the tea party is helping that happen on the right. "If that is the standard," says Burden, "they might be willing to forgo winning the election to have someone they really trust be the nominee."