- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Tuesday he would not run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, opening the door for former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was toying with entering the race.

Hours before Mr. Ryan announced his intentions in a statement on his campaign website, two Republicans told the Associated Press that Mr. Thompson would strongly consider getting into the race if Mr. Ryan chose not to run. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for Mr. Thompson.

Mr. Ryan‘s departure could lead to a flood of Republican candidates more seriously eyeing the open seat, especially given political newcomer Ron Johnson’s success in coming out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold for Wisconsin’s other Senate seat last year.

Mr. Kohl, who announced Friday that he was retiring and wouldn’t seek a fifth term next year, is one of six Democrats vacating their seats next year. Two Republicans have announced they are retiring.

Republicans, who already control the House, need to pick up just four seats to swipe the Senate majority away from the Democrats.

Mr. Ryan, chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, said in his Tuesday statement that he felt he could make a bigger difference by keeping his current seat rather than running for the Senate. Mr. Ryan first was elected to represent southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District in 1998.

“Our nation is quickly approaching a debt crisis that will do serious damage to Wisconsinites and all Americans if it is not properly addressed,” Mr. Ryan said. “I believe continuing to serve as chairman of the House Budget Committee allows me to have a greater impact in averting this debt-fueled economic crisis than if I were to run for the United States Senate.”

Mr. Thompson’s flirting with another run for office almost has become an annual event in Wisconsin, a state where he was a wildly popular governor first elected in 1986 but where he hasn’t won an election since 1998 or held public office in a decade.

He left the governor’s office in 2001 to become President George W. Bush’s secretary of health and human services, a position he held until 2005. Mr. Thompson ran for president in 2007 but dropped out after finishing seventh in the Iowa straw poll.

He also briefly considered running for governor in 2009 and against Mr. Feingold for the Senate last year. He dropped out in a fiery speech at a tea party rally that many expected would be his last dalliance with a run for public office.

Mr. Thompson, 69, said that the decision not to run then was emotionally gut-wrenching but that his family’s “reservoir of good will” had dried up after his failed run for president in 2007.

“I told my family last night, it’s time for new voices and new faces,” he said last year.

Mr. Thompson did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday. A spokesman said he was in Japan for the week.

Top Republicans said he is putting out feelers about a run because it is an open seat and he sees the electorate as favorable. However, one person said Mr. Thompson would not make a quick announcement about his intentions.

Mr. Thompson’s entry would give Republicans a potential nominee with a national profile and a long history with Wisconsin voters. But it’s unclear if Mr. Thompson — who has not held office of any kind since leaving Mr. Bush’s Cabinet — has the heft to clear a Republican field that could include a number of ambitious, statewide politicians.

Other Republicans mentioned as possible Senate candidates include Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, former U.S. Reps. Mark Neumann and Mark Green, state legislative leaders and brothers Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald, and former state Sen. Ted Kanavas.

Possible Democratic candidates for the Senate seat include Mr. Feingold, U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin of Madison and Ron Kind of La Crosse, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Henry C. Jackson reported from Washington.