Tommy Thompson, the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history, won the Republican U.S. Senate nomination and will face Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in November.
Thompson, 70, garnered 34 percent of the vote to 31 percent for banker and investor Eric Hovde, with 97 percent of precincts counted early Wednesday, according to unofficial results reported by the Associated Press.
Thompson won the right to compete for the seat being vacated by retiring four-term Democrat Herb Kohl, 77.
Also defeated by Thompson were former Rep. Mark Neumann, and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. Baldwin, 50, ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.
“He’ll definitely be the strongest candidate against Baldwin,” said Joe Heim, who teaches politics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “He bucked the tea party trend.”
Thompson, appointed by President George W. Bush as his Health and Human Services secretary in 2001, was first elected Wisconsin’s governor in 1987.
He started the national debate over welfare reform after he persuaded state lawmakers to pass a bill requiring able-bodied recipients to find work. In 2008, he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination.
Political attention paid to Wisconsin has increased since Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to be his running mate in the presidential campaign.
Tea party influence in the state helped elect Republican Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who defeated three-term Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold in 2010.
Walker provoked a recall election against him when he used legislative majorities to curb collective bargaining power for most public employees. He survived the June 5 ouster vote.
Thompson, whose political career in the state started in 1966, drew opposition from tea party supporters who said it was time for new blood in the Republican Party.
“Tommy has a reputation of getting things done,” Heim said. “In this election, he was the establishment candidate who won, beating the more conservative crowd.”
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