- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

Some hesitant would-be candidates need encouragement to throw their hats into the ring next year. One of the most prominent conservative personalities who is reluctant to run for the Senate is Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. We say, “Run, Tommy, run.”

It is an open secret that the secretary misses his home state of Wisconsin and is less than enamored with life in Washington. But Republican strategists hate to lose one of the party’s most visionary public-policy thinkers. As governor of Wisconsin, his leadership guided the nation on welfare reform and school vouchers, the latter of which he approved for inner-city Milwaukee way back in 1990. Mr. Thompson’s conservative-reformist credentials couldn’t stand in more contrast to the knee-jerk liberalism of the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Russell Feingold, who voted against the Patriot Act, against a ban on partial-birth abortions and against the president’s tax cuts.

The senator is vulnerable if the GOP can field a strong challenger. Earlier this week, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute released a poll showing that Mr. Feingold’s favorability rating is below 50 percent. He barely won his last two elections, with 53 percent of the vote in 1992 and 51 percent in 1998. The incumbent would have a hard time beating Mr. Thompson, Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, who voters elected statewide four times. In a matchup pitting the Bush Cabinet secretary against the liberal senator, the research institute survey found Mr. Thompson leading Mr. Feingold by 45 percent to 44 percent. This is a very strong showing for Mr. Thompson because it is a hypothetical matchup for a race he hasn’t even entered.

One extra seat in the Senate could be vital for conservatives. The Republican-Democratic split in the Senate currently is 51- 48 with one liberal-voting independent, and there are many undecided races up for grabs next year. Republicans still don’t have clear candidates in Florida, Oklahoma, Nevada, Arkansas or South Dakota, and the party could lose seats in Alaska, Illinois and Colorado. With a little bad luck, the upper chamber could revert to liberal Democratic control. After losing Wisconsin by only 6,000 votes in 2000, the Bush campaign will spend a lot of money in the battleground state, which would bolster Mr. Thompson’s chances of winning the Senate race there.

In May, Tommy Thompson hinted that he was inclined to leave the Bush administration after the 2004 election. The secretary also said he would like to return to Wisconsin to run for public office. In the last year, Mr. Thompson moved out of a modest apartment and bought a luxurious townhouse in Alexandria. This might be a sign that he can be convinced to stay around Washington, at least part of the time. In the Senate, he could represent his home state, visit Wisconsin regularly and still serve the country on national level. It’s our view that he should go for it.

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