It's a tale whose origins date to the Middle Ages, the story of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the devil. That's the scenario Democrats will be shopping this fall about Tommy Thompson, your Republican candidate for U.S. Senate: that this wide-eyed, small-town boy from Elroy, after 38 years as a public servant, couldn't resist compromising himself for cash, greedily striking a devilish bargain to win a lobbyist's plunder.
"I'm going to be very well compensated," Thompson crowed in 2005, after retiring as U.S. Secretary of Health and Social Services. He was soon lobbying for many of the companies his department had once regulated. According to the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, none of the 24 members of President George W. Bush's cabinet did more lobbying than Thompson, who worked for 42 different companies. By 2012, a man who for most of his life was merely middle class now had an estimated net worth of $13 million, placing him among the top one percent of wealthiest Americans.
"It's about whose side you're on," charges U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, his Democratic opponent. "Tommy Thompson has spent these last many years giving access to some of the most powerful moneyed interests in the United States, helping them write their own rules." Or as the tagline of her TV ads puts it: "Tommy Thompson. He's not for you anymore."
Baldwin went on the attack almost the minute Thompson won the Republican primary, and for good reason: There's probably no other way she can win. The polls show Thompson with anywhere from a five-point to nine-point lead in the polls. Thompson was a very popular governor who ran up huge electoral margins and is so well known his first name alone brings instant voter recognition.
And though Thompson sold himself in the GOP primary as a "true conservative" and "way over to the right," most voters remember him as a moderate Republican. Thompson greatly increased state funding of public schools while creating the nation's first school choice program, and won the support of some Democrats for his nationally celebrated welfare reform program.
"Everybody loves Tommy," declares Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin native who now heads the Republican National Committee. "They like the Packers, they like Harley-Davidsons, they like Miller Light, and they like Tommy Thompson."
By contrast, Baldwin is hardly a household word, and the sort of Dane County liberal that can be a tough sell in this state. She is bucking to become the nation's first openly lesbian U.S. senator, but downplays that, as does Thompson, actually. "Tammy Baldwin is a nice lady," Thompson has said. "She's just so far liberal that Nancy Pelosi has to turn left to talk to her."
The National Journal ranked Baldwin as tied for the most liberal member of Congress in 2010, 25th-most liberal in 2009 and 13th-most liberal in 2008. She has annually introduced a bill creating a program of national health insurance, which Thompson condemns as "far beyond 'Obamacare'...a Medicare system for all, in which the government makes all the decisions."
Lefty Tammy versus likable Tommy is the race Thompson wants and should easily win, but that requires as little clash with Baldwin as possible. Baldwin immediately accepted three proposed debates: on Oct. 18, sponsored by Wisconsin Public Television and other media organizations; on Oct. 26, by Milwaukee's WISN-TV and Marquette University Law School; and on Oct. 28, by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Foundation. It's been more than three weeks since Thompson won the primary and he's yet to accept one debate.
Thompson has also adamantly refused to release any of his federal tax forms, even as he supports the budget plan of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, which would give an average tax cut of $265,000 to wealthy Americans. Thompson's campaign has said the cut is needed because wealthy people now pay 37% of all federal taxes raised, but he declines to reveal what his effective tax rate is. "Voters deserve to know how his tax plan would benefit him and people like him," says Baldwin campaign manager John Kraus.
Thompson wants to eliminate government regulations like the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which helped reinstate controls over the financial industry that were stripped by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1998. Its repeal relaxed decades-old rules that banks had to follow and led to the financial meltdown of 2008. Baldwin opposed its repeal and voted for Dodd-Frank.
This is the kind of issue Baldwin wants to run on, contrasting her views to those of the suddenly more conservative Tommy, the millionaire lobbyist of the last seven years. Thompson's team, by contrast, would rather the race is about the former governor and Badger icon. That candidate can't lose, so his handlers will do their best, between now and Nov. 6, to deflect attention from today's Tommy.
Former Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy is now editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.