By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was attempting a political comeback Tuesday as he squared off with three fellow Republicans in a primary race for a Senate seat their party hasn’t held for decades.
The Wisconsin seat, open due to the retirement of Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, could determine which party holds majority control next year as Republicans need at least four to take over. The winner in Tuesday’s primary faces Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin in the fall.
Republicans haven’t held the seat since 1957, but they hope momentum is on their side in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker’s recall victory in June and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate on Saturday.
Facing Thompson, a former governor and Cabinet secretary, are former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, businessman and political newcomer Eric Hovde and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.
The primary has been nasty, with the candidates and outside groups spending millions attacking one another while attempting to appeal to the conservative Republican base most likely to show up in a low turnout election. Turnout is predicted to be 20 percent.
Polls have shown Thompson enjoyed a wide, early lead but that Hovde — who spent at least $4 million on the race — was closing as the election neared. Hovde positioned himself as the outsider businessman candidate in best position to shake up the Washington establishment.
Thompson, 70, had the most name recognition as a governor for 14 years who was first elected in 1966. Thompson hasn’t been on the ballot since 1998.
But he campaigned on the argument that he’s the most qualified candidate, given his experience in state office and as President George W. Bush’s health secretary for four years. On Monday, he tried to capitalize on the buzz around Ryan’s selection by rushing out a radio ad featuring Ryan praising him during a Sunday rally with Romney in Wisconsin.
Prominent Republicans, including Ryan, Walker and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, have not endorsed anyone in the race.
Neumann garnered support from tea party favorites such as Sens. Rand Paul and Jim DeMint, as well as the Tea Party Express and anti-tax group Club for Growth.
Fitzgerald, who trailed both in fundraising and in the polls, tried to align himself closely with Walker and his policies he helped get passed in the Legislature.