U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's decision not to run for Wisconsin's soon-to-be open Senate seat cleared the path Tuesday for other Republicans eyeing a race that will help determine the balance of power in the Senate. Until Tommy Thompson got in the way.
Just hours before Ryan announced his intentions on his campaign website, two Republicans who have spoken with Thompson about his plans told The Associated Press that the former governor would strongly consider getting into the race if Ryan chose not to run. They requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for Thompson, who was traveling out of the country all week.
The news was a mixed bag for the field of potential Republican candidates looking to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl.
The decision by Ryan, who was widely viewed as the front runner if he decided to get in the race, should give other potential candidates more motivation to run. Those without Thompson's political resume may be emboldened by Ron Johnson's victory last year over Democrat Russ Feingold. Johnson, a businessman who never previously ran for office, didn't even get into the race until less than six months before the election.
But Thompson's flirtation with a run also could strike fear into candidates who don't have his instant name recognition, years of public service and affection among many voters — even though he hasn't won statewide office since 1998.
Last week a spokesman for Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said Fitzgerald would consider a run if Ryan were out. On Tuesday, Fitzgerald said he's waiting to decide until after Thompson makes up his mind.
One Republican with close ties to Thompson, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment on the race, said Thompson wasn't likely to make a quick decision.
Thompson publicly mulling another run for office has become a nearly annual event in Wisconsin, a state where he was a wildly popular governor first elected in 1986 but where he hasn't held public office in a decade.
He left the governor's office in 2001 to become President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services secretary, a position he held until 2005. Thompson ran for president in 2007 but dropped out after finishing seventh in the Iowa straw poll.
Thompson, 69, also briefly considered running for governor in 2009 and kept speculation swirling for months about whether he would challenge Feingold last year. Just a day before announcing he wasn't running, Thompson insisted he still didn't know what he was going to say.
As the crowd started chanting his name when he was announcing his intent not to run, Thompson looked like he was ready to throw out the script and jump into the race.
"I'm like an old warhorse," he said afterward. "I hear that bell and I'm ready to run."
Thompson said then that the decision was emotionally gut-wrenching but that his family's "reservoir of good will" dried up after his failed run for president.
Top Republicans say he is putting out feelers about a run now because it is an open seat and he sees the electorate as favorable.
Thompson would give Republicans a potential nominee with a national profile and a long history with Wisconsin voters. But it's unclear if he still has the heft to clear a GOP field that could include a number of ambitious, statewide politicians.
Ryan's decision to stand down wasn't unexpected. The Janesville native has a national platform as chairman of the House Budget Committee and could even lose some clout were he to leave for the Senate.
Popular as he is among conservatives, a 2012 Senate run also would have offered Ryan no guarantees — his recent budget proposal on behalf of House Republicans, which called for enormous cuts to government programs including Medicare, likely would have been used against him.
No Republican has won a Senate seat in a presidential election year in Wisconsin since 1980.
Ryan said Tuesday that he felt he could make a bigger difference by keeping his current seat. He was first elected to represent southeastern Wisconsin's 1st congressional district in 1998.
"I believe continuing to serve as chairman of the House Budget Committee allows me to have a greater impact in averting this debt-fueled economic crisis than if I were to run for the United States Senate," Ryan said.
The state's GOP resurgence, particularly the success of Johnson, has given ambitious Republicans cause for optimism that wasn't present when Thompson decided to bow out of the 2010 race and national Republicans expect a crowded Senate primary.
Other Republicans mentioned as possible candidates include Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, former U.S. Reps. Mark Neumann and Mark Green, state legislative leaders and brothers Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald, and former state Sen. Ted Kanavas.
Possible Democratic candidates include Feingold, U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin of Madison and Ron Kind of La Crosse. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was considered a possible candidate, but his spokesman said Tuesday he would not get into the race to replace Kohl.
Kohl announced Friday that he wasn't seeking a fifth term next year. He is one of six Democrats not seeking re-election in the Senate. Two Republicans also have announced they are retiring.
Republicans, who already control the House, need to pick up just four new seats to swipe the Senate majority away from Democrats.
Jackson contributed from Washington.