Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) made it official Thursday and entered the Wisconsin Senate race.
"As governor, we built a strong economy by empowering people, not government, vetoing hundreds of millions of dollars of spending. We cut taxes 91 times. We ended welfare. We also reformed education," he said in a campaign video announcing his decision, which has been expected for months. "Innovative ideas, bold reforms, all based on conservative commonsense principles."
Thompson is facing a stiff primary challenge from former Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.) and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R). He has come under fire from conservatives for backing early incarnations of President Obama's healthcare reform bill, and for increases in government spending while he was governor.
Both the conservative Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund have endorsed Neumann. And on Thursday, the Club sent out an email blasting Thompson's past support of Obama's healthcare reforms and detailing his membership on the board of America's Agenda, a bipartisan group that backed the law from the start.
Thompson came out against the final bill but did support early incarnations of it. His campaign said he resigned from the board before the law was passed.
"Mark Neumann has used the Club before to spread his lies about Tommy Thompson and today is no different," said Thompson spokesperson Darrin Schmitz. "America's Agenda was set up with equal number of representatives from business and labor to develop bipartisan health care reform. Thompson was a Republican representative advocating for reform from the business perspective. He resigned from the board after the bipartisan reforms veered left and evolved into Obamacare, which he has never supported."
In an interview, Neumann refused to directly criticize Thompson but argued that he was the more conservative Republican.
"There's multiple studies out in Wisconsin as far as voting records and I’m clearly the most conservative person in this race, it’s not something I have to make up," he said. "We’ve been plugging away against ObamaCare since before it was the law ... I have a great deal of respect for the governor."
Neumann repeatedly refused to comment on the attacks from the Club for Growth on Thompson's record, but embraced the groups' help.
"I have a great deal of respect for the governor, he was a great governor in the state of Wisconsin," he said. "I appreciate their endorsements and I appreciate the support that comes with their endorsements, but that doesn’t give me the opportunity to be involved with them in any way, shape or form ... I can't control what they're doing."
Democrats hope Neumann or Fitzpatrick wins the primary because Thompson's more centrist profile and high name recognition could help him in the state, and have been hammering away at Thompson as well.
"Tommy Thompson's flip flopping and pandering is so bad that he makes Mitt Romney look like a man of principle," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Shripal Shah said. "The fact is that even Republicans are disgusted with his record and the way he peddles influence as a DC lobbyist. Tommy Thompson is the last person Wisconsin needs in the Senate."
The winner of the Republican primary will likely take on Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in the general election. They are running to replace Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who is retiring.
This post was updated at 3:00 p.m.