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Ryan and Thompson, Two Conservative Paths

It's been virtually ignored in the wake of Paul Ryan's ascension to the presidential ticket, but Wisconsin's Senate primary is today -- and the trajectory of the race speaks to how much the Republican electorate has evolved.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson is on the ballot, something of a political godfather to Republicans like Ryan. A leader in advancing the conservative causes like welfare reform and school choice as governor in the 1990s, he was--like Ryan today--a leading vice-presidential contender in the 1996 and 2000 elections.

But Thompson's stock has fallen markedly since his heyday. He worked as a lobbyist after leaving the Bush administration where he served as HHS Secretary, and came out for elements of President Obama's health care proposal. To some conservative activists, he exemplifies what's wrong with politicians, making good money after a distinguished career but compromising principles in the process. 

So despite his impressive record and resume, Thompson will be lucky to crack 30 percent of the vote. If he wins, it will be because his three challengers closely split the conservative electorate. Ryan has stayed out of the primary, despite his past loyalty to Thompson. 

Since 2010, Republican primary voters have shown they're drawn to principled conservative candidates who have kept their distance from Washington. They feel like they've found an ally in Ryan, who was a lonely advocate for entitlement reform before it became a Republican cause célèbre, and who trekked back home to Wisconsin most weekends, sleeping in his office during the week rather than renting a place in Washington.  

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