MADISON, Wis. -- Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, mounting a political comeback following a successful career in office dating back nearly 50 years, won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate over three challengers Tuesday.
Thompson, 70, hadn't appeared on the ballot in Wisconsin since 1998 and faced stiff competition from a field that included a political newcomer who spent millions in an ultimately failed attempt at winning the seat.
Eric Hovde, who lived 24 years in Washington, D.C., before returning to Wisconsin last year to launch his first run for office, was unable to match Thompson's deep name recognition in the state.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Thompson had 34 percent of the vote compared with 31 percent for Hovde. Former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, who had tea party support, was in third with 23 percent. State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who lagged in fundraising and could not compete in the television ad wars, was a distant fourth with 12 percent.
Thompson now advances to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who was unopposed, in November.
Gov. Scott Walker, who did not endorse anyone in the race, issued a one-sentence statement saying, "Voters in Wisconsin will have a clear choice between an extreme liberal from Madison or a proven reformer who can get us working again."
Thompson, addressing his supporters, referred to Walker's recent recall election victory and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's being tabbed as Mitt Romney's running mate.
"Wisconsin is on a roll!" Thompson said.
Baldwin, in prepared comments to her backers at a rally in Milwaukee, agreed that the election presents a clear choice.
"I will fight to do what's right for the middle class and my opponent will put those at the very top and the big-moneyed special interests in Washington ahead of Wisconsin's hardworking families," said Baldwin, who would be the first openly gay person elected to the Senate.
The race presents a huge opportunity for Republicans to pick up a seat in the Senate, where they need at least three more to regain the majority. Wisconsin's seat is open following the retirement of Democrat Herb Kohl.
The seat has been in Democratic hands since 1957 following the death of Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy.
The Senate Republican candidates differed little on the issues, but the campaign was marked by a barrage of negative ads in the last month focusing largely on Hovde's businesses dealings and Thompson's past comments on health care reform. Neumann also drew heat for being a perennial candidate -- he last ran in 2010 for governor against Walker and lost in the primary.
Thompson tried to distance himself from comments he made in support of elements of President Barack Obama's health care reform law, including the individual mandate. He has since come out in opposition of the law in its entirety and focused his campaign on being the 51st vote to repeal it.
Susan Hamblin, a 65-year-old retired teacher and former city council member from Madison, said she voted for Thompson because he's passionate about Wisconsin and has the best chances to beat Baldwin in the fall.
"I think he's a very strong candidate, very reasonable, very friendly," Hamblin said. "He's got passion for the state of Wisconsin. It comes out of every pore of his body."
Hovde, a political newcomer, based his campaign on what he called an economic crisis facing the country and the need to have someone like him with a business background to deal with the national debt. He modeled his campaign after Ron Johnson, the Republican Fond du Lac businessman who came out of nowhere in 2010 to beat Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Unlike Johnson, Hovde was not the favored candidate of the tea party contingent of the Republican Party. Neumann was able to garner more of that backing, winning endorsements from the Tea Party Express, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and U.S. Rep. Rand Paul.
Still, it wasn't enough for Neumann to overcome Thompson's name recognition or Hovde's money.
Both Hovde and Neumann endorsed Thompson in their concession speeches and urged their backers to defeat Baldwin.
"Tammy Baldwin is somewhere out to the left of Barack Obama in never never land," Neumann said.
Fitzgerald tried to ride Walker's coattails to a win, reminding voters of his key role in passing Walker's conservative agenda through the Legislature last year. But Fitzgerald never gained traction and didn't raise enough money to compete on television. John Pfeifer, 76, said Fitzgerald earned his vote by being the only candidate not to run a mud-slinging campaign.
"He showed integrity, he didn't go through any negative approach and he stuck with Scott Walker," said Pfeifer, a consultant from Brookfield. "I think people are sick of all the negative. I picked someone with integrity."