Paul Ryan steps up for cash-strapped ‘mentor’ Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) took a break from the presidential trail to fundraise for Tommy Thompson on Sunday afternoon — a show of loyalty as his hero fights for his political life.

Ryan, who has referred to the former governor as his “greatest mentor,” stopped by the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee to help cut into Rep. Tammy Baldwin's (D-Wis.) big cash edge in her Senate race against Thompson. 

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Ryan's first fundraiser for a down-ticket candidate since he joined GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign this August is a sign of his devotion to the godfather of Wisconsin conservatism — and an acknowledgement that Thompson faces a tough fight.

Ryan isn’t the only prominent Wisconsin Republican chipping in to help Thompson as he struggles to catch up to Baldwin both in the polls and at the bank. Joining him at the fundraiser were Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), a hero to conservatives nationwide after surviving a tough recall election this June, and Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus. Walker accompanied Thompson to a campaign stop at a GOP phone bank in suburban Wauwatosa after the event.

"Scott, Reince and I are protégés of the Tommy Thompson farm team,” Ryan told donors at the fundraiser. "He is a great leader who has done extraordinary things."



Priebus agreed.


“To me, Scott and Paul, Tommy is a hero of ours,” Priebus told The Hill. “All three of us look up to Tommy Thompson in admiration not just for what he's done as a leader in Wisconsin but as a person and as a conservative we grew up watching and trying to emulate. It's a different feeling ... we appreciate him, respect him and look up to him. It's important for us to be there for Tommy Thompson.”

Thompson narrowly survived his August primary after getting a last-minute near-endorsement from Ryan, who name-checked Thompson during his homecoming rally in Waukesha the day after he was announced as Romney's running mate.

Thompson squeaked through the primary but it left him broke, trailing Baldwin in cash on hand, $3.2 million to $350,000 as of the end of July. He was "exhausted" and "a million dollars in the hole" by the end of the mid-August primary, he recently told the National Review.

While Thompson was licking his wounds, Baldwin and liberal groups pounced, flooding the airwaves with attacks on his time working for Washington, D.C.-based pharmaceutical groups after he stepped down as Health and Human Services secretary.

The attacks worked: Thompson went from a comfortable high single-digit lead in public polls to trailing by the same margin in a month. While conservative groups are now spending heavily in his defense and the race has tightened, most recent polls show Baldwin with a narrow edge — and she has likely retained her cash advantage, though Thompson recently said he'd raised more than $2 million in the past three months. Baldwin and her allies have doubled up the money spent by Thompson and his allies on television ads so far, a shift from the vast cash edge Walker enjoyed during his own recall election this past summer.

"Tommy Thompson's numbers were high leading up to the primary. He spent all his money getting through the primary and for two or three weeks he was off the air and Tammy Baldwin and her allies were able to come in and burn in a message without any response that I don't think accurately reflected who Tommy Thompson is," Walker, sporting a dark blue Harley Davidson tie, told The Hill Sunday evening at the Wauwatosa event. "You've now seen Tommy Thompson creep back up again as you started to slowly get more money to get resources back up on the air."

Thompson agreed, and admitted the cash infusion was needed.

"To have the endorsement of Scott Walker, Reince Preibus, who flew out here from Washington, and Congressman Paul Ryan to me is tremendously gratifying, tremendously helpful in this last push. And the money was not bad either," Thompson admitted to reporters when asked how important the fundraiser was for him financially. "We've got to be competitive and we were disarmed for a few weeks after the primary, and as of a result of that the congresswoman got some traction by tearing me down."

While the money is sure to help, by fully embracing Ryan, Thompson has also given Baldwin another line of attack.

"Tommy Thompson spent the last six to eight months embracing the Paul Ryan plan, his budget, and saying he wants to be the 51st vote in the Senate to help pass that. And I look at budgets as values documents," she said at a Sunday morning event in suburban Whitefish Bay. 

"I do believe we are all in this together and that everyone deserves a fair shot. But everyone deserves their fair share, and that's the antithesis of what we see in the Paul Ryan budget," said added.

Thompson retains high name recognition in the state. If he can raise enough money to stay on the air he's likely to run slightly ahead of the Romney-Ryan ticket. Recent polls show the GOP ticket within striking distance of Obama in Wisconsin, which could very well be enough for a Thompson win. But as the Sunday fundraiser shows, he'll need all the fundraising help he can get.

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