MADISON, Wis. (AP) - It's Tammy versus Tommy in the Wisconsin Senate race.
Tommy Thompson, the former 14-year governor who spent a lifetime in the public eye but hadn't been on the ballot since 1998, survived a nasty four-person primary on Tuesday to advance to take on Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
Baldwin, a liberal from Madison first elected to Congress the same year Thompson last won, was unopposed.
Both Baldwin and Thompson say the Nov. 6 election will present voters with a clear choice in what direction they want to go.
"Tommy Thompson supports the policies of the past," Baldwin said in a statement. "Policies that have failed. Policies from the past that crashed our economy and got us into our fiscal mess in the first place."
Republicans see the Wisconsin seat, open due to the retirement of Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, as an opportunity to push them closer to the Senate majority. Republicans need a net gain for four seats to take control.
The seat has been in Democratic hands since 1957 following the death of Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy.
In Tuesday's Republican primary, Thompson defeated political newcomer and millionaire businessman Eric Hovde, tea party favorite and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. Thompson had 34 percent of the vote compared with 31 percent for Hovde. Neumann was third with 23 percent followed by Fitzgerald with 12 percent.
An exuberant Thompson, who earlier in the campaign dropped down and did 50 push-ups on video during a meeting with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's editorial board, said he was ready to take on Baldwin.
"Wisconsin is on a roll!" the 70-year-old Thompson said, referring to Gov. Scott Walker's recall election victory in June and Mitt Romney's selection of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan from Janesville as his running mate.
Walker issued a one-sentence statement on the race: "Voters in Wisconsin will have a clear choice between an extreme liberal from Madison or a proven reformer who can get us working again."
None of Thompson's challengers, who appealed to different factions of the Republican Party, could overcome his name recognition earned after 46 years in the public eye.
"He's a tough competitor," Hovde said of Thompson. "It was a tough race."
Hovde, who lived 24 years in Washington, D.C., before returning to Wisconsin last year to launch his first run for office, said his brief political career was over. He spent about $5 million on the race through July.
Thompson was first elected to the state Assembly in 1966. He served 20 years, then ran for governor in 1986 and was elected four times. He left in 2001 to become President George W. Bush's health secretary, a post he held until 2005. He briefly ran for president in 2007 but dropped out due to lack of support.
Baldwin, first elected to the House in 1998 after serving six years in the state Assembly, is popular in liberal Madison. She has been re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote every two years since 2002.
But she is far less known in the rest of the state, where the party desperately needs to build support among swing voters. And Baldwin's Democratic agenda will be tough to sell to a divided electorate that has repeatedly rejected many liberal ideals in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Democrats are counting on Baldwin to snap a series of losses in Wisconsin that began in 2010, when Republicans took control of the Legislature, Walker was elected governor and tea party favorite Ron Johnson knocked off then-Sen. Russ Feingold. Then the conservative-backed candidate for state Supreme Court prevailed last year and Walker fought back a recall effort with a decisive 7-point victory in June.
Hovde, Neumann and Fitzgerald all endorsed Thompson and encouraged their supporters to get behind him to defeat Baldwin.
"Tammy Baldwin is somewhere out to the left of Barack Obama in never never land," Neumann said.
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."