WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans looking to win a U.S. Senate seat that's been in Democratic control for more than 50 years are facing an ideological identity crisis as they wrestle with what type of candidate they want to field for the open spot.
Their options run from old-school moderates like former Gov. Tommy Thompson to young, conservative firebrands who were at the forefront of the push to take away public workers' collective bargaining rights.
As the state's Republican power brokers, office holders and activists gathered Saturday for their annual state convention, winning the Senate seat in 2012 was on center stage.
"In many ways, sustaining what we've won will make getting here look easy. We must hold on to what has worked," U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said at the convention Saturday. "We're about to face some of the toughest challenges we as Republicans have ever faced. ... That's because Wisconsin is ground zero in 2012 and we can never forget it."
The ideological struggle is already playing out publically with the conservative Club for Growth slamming a possible Thompson candidacy and posting a web ad attacking him. The 69-year-old moderate worked well the with the unions Republican Gov. Scott Walker took on earlier this year, said positive things about Democratic health care reforms the GOP has vowed to repeal and advocated for high speed rail lines that Walker quashed.
"Wisconsin Republicans should recruit a pro-growth conservative to run, not recall some big-government, pro-tax Republican whose time has come and gone," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said.
The GOP field is wide open after U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan said earlier this week that he wouldn't run for the Senate seat. Ryan has won national attention with his plan to cut federal spending.
Thompson has not said whether he will run for the Senate, but just like last year, he's expressing interest privately. Signs from previous Thompson campaigns were posted throughout the Wisconsin Dells convention center where the Republicans gathered for their convention.
Republicans are confident they can win the seat that Democrat Herb Kohl has held since 1989 and that's been in Democratic hands since 1957, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus knows what it will take.
A former Wisconsin party chairman, Priebus was integral in the conservative wave that washed over the state last November. That included businessman Ron Johnson's victory over Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold, winning two congressional seats, capturing the governor's office and winning both chambers of the Legislature.
Both Priebus and Johnson agree the best candidate for Kohl's seat will be a Republican who focuses on the economy. Priebus didn't want to weigh in on some factions of the party criticizing a possible Thompson candidacy.
"I'm not going to say anything negative about Tommy Thompson, who is probably one of the greatest governors who ever served in the state of Wisconsin," Priebus said.
Johnson said he wouldn't have run last year if Thompson had been in the race.
"He's a larger than life figure here in the state of Wisconsin," Johnson said.
No matter the Republican candidate, Democrats are confident they have momentum on their side following the explosive first months of Walker's administration and Ryan's pushing of a federal budget plan that would replace Medicare with a voucher system.
"There are no real moderates left in that party," Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski said. "The moderates are marching in the streets with us. They're going to end up with an extreme candidate."
The mood is so toxic for Republicans, Zielinski argued, all Democrats need to do is field an "average, decent person" for the Senate race.
"The Scott Walker-Paul Ryan agenda has gotten so wacky, so out of step with even the moderate Republican political thought, our candidate will be a strong moderate who builds through consensus and will be able to listen to both sides and work with both sides," he said.
Walker rocked the state and the country in just his second month in office with his polarizing plan taking away collective bargaining rights from state workers. As much as it upset the political left, Walker solidified his conservative base and raised his national profile throughout the month-long fight to pass the bill, which cleared the Republican-controlled Legislature but remains on hold pending a lawsuit.
That issue motivated efforts to recall nine state senators, including six Republicans. Those elections expected this summer could give Democrats control of the state Senate, allowing them to block Walker's agenda.
Walker said at the convention that Republicans should be focused on winning those recall elections, not the Senate race.
Two of the main players in the union debate, Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald, are among the Republicans considering a Senate run. The brothers now hold the top leadership positions in the state Senate and Assembly. They say they want to wait until at least this summer before making a decision. They also say they won't run against one another.
Both spoke at the convention which attracted about 1,000 party faithful at a Wisconsin Dells waterpark.