Which way for Republicans in Wisconsin?

This Washington Post story confirms what I wrote earlier today about the Wisconsin Senate race — Tommy Thompson is in trouble. But let’s do the full disclosure thing before going any further. Thompson was a partner of mine at the law firm from which I recently retired. More importantly to me, he was an exemplary partner.

Thompson is also one of the most successful politicians in Wisconsin history. He was elected governor four times, three of them with at least 58 percent of the vote. This in a state that leans Democratic.

Thompson’s last race was in 1998. Yet until recently, he looked still to be the same kind of powerhouse. In June, a Marquette University poll had him ahead of his nearest Republican rival by 18 points. Early in July, the same organization had him up by 12.

But now, two polls from late July (PPP and WeAskAmerica) have Thompson basically tied for the lead. In the PPP poll, he’s essentially tied with hedge-fund manager Eric Hovde and former Rep. Mark Neumann, who was part of the Gingrich revolution in 1994. WeAskAmerica has Thompson and Hovde tied, with both 6 points ahead of Neumann. (All of the polls referenced so far are collected here).

What happened? First, Hovde splashed $4 million of his own money into the race, promoting himself as a fresh face with business experience. Second, negative ads directed at Thompson hit home by focusing on favorable statements he has made in the past about the individual mandate. Third, according to the Post, Thompson simply didn’t have the money to respond through advertising of his own.

What will happen between now and the primary on August 14? I’m no expert in these matters. However, I do know that in recent Republican Senate primaries, the trend has rarely been the friend of the established center-right poltician — a fair, if partial, description of Thompson. This has been true even in three-way races, where the anti-establishment vote is susceptible to being divided (e.g., Nevada in 2010 and Nebraska this year).

Neumann actually may have a better chance of holding off Hovde than Thompson does. I understand that the Club for Growth will be pushing hard for the former Congressman. Neumann, though, is not the fresh face who typically brings down the old lion. In fact, Neumann lost to Governor Scott Walker in the last gubernatorial primary. But his credentials as a fiscal conservative are, I believe, solid.

Speaking of Gov. Walker, where does he stand in this race? On the sidelines as a referee, guarding against any of the contenders crossing the line, he says. Walker adds: “I haven’t dropped a flag yet, but it’s getting pretty close.” He may have Hovde in mind. Recently, according to the Post, Hovde suggested that Thompson lacks the intellectual heft needed for the job.

What about the general election? That, for me, is the big question, given that control of the Senate could turn on this race. Not long ago, Thompson was the only Republican running ahead of Democrat Tammy Baldwin in the polls. But with Thompson’s negatives on the rise, Rasmussen polling recently put Baldwin ahead of all Republican contenders, with Hovde running a bit better than Thompson.

All in all, then, the Democrats finally have something to smile about in Wisconsin.