"Back to Kenya" is Latest Thompson Campaign Gaffe

For weeks, the Thompson campaign has fended off accusations that it is keeping Tommy Thompson, candidate for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, away from the press.

So reporters were extra hungry when Congressman Paul Ryan and Governor Scott Walker hosted a fundraiser for Tommy yesterday at the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee.

They were not disappointed.

Today, video of Thompson's son, Jason, making comments about sending President Obama "back to Kenya" is going viral.

"We have the opportunity to send President Obama back to Chicago . . . or Kenya," Jason Thompson says in a speech, to applause. A woman's voice chimes in: "We're taking donations for that Kenya trip."

Daniel Bice, columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reports that Thompson denied knowing about the remark when he met with reporters after the event. An hour later, his campaign sent out a statement correcting the record: "The Governor has addressed this with his son, just like any father would do," said the campaign statement. "Jason Thompson said something he should not have, and he apologizes."

The incident is just the latest in a series of gaffes that have plagued the Thompson campaign.

A video of Thompson telling a group “Who better than me . . . to do away with Medicaid and Medicare?” became campaign fodder last month.

Afterwards, the National Review reported that Tommy made disgruntled remarks about how his campaign staff were trying to "put me in a silo."

Another youtube video seemed to confirm this--showing the governor being hustled into his car after a press club speech in Milwaukee, as reporters try to ask him questions. Daniel Bice is shown in the video, wedging himself in the passenger door of Thompson's car to ask questions as campaign staff repeatedly try to interrupt the conversation:

Tommy has a long history of making the kind of impolitic, off-the-cuff remarks that make reporters and opponents pounce, and campaign staff cringe.

But the fact is, for much of his career, Thompson's un-P.C. style has endeared him to Wisconsin voters, making him seem genuine in an era of heavily managed campaigns.

"I've got the minorities on my side!" Thompson crowed, by way of introducing members of the Ho Chunk tribe at a campaign fundraiser during the Republican convention.

When he was running for President, Tommy told the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, admiringly, that making money is "part of the Jewish tradition." He had to apologize for appearing anti-Semitic. But actually, it seemed pretty clear from the context that Thompson had the best of intentions--"I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money," he had told the group, happily.

Indians, Jews--everyone is invited to Tommy Thompson's big, happy, money-making Republican party. Unfortunately, that's not the tenor of the current Republican campaign.

"I want everyone to drink a beer tonight!" Tommy declared after winning the Senate primary.

That's the Tommy Wisconsinites know and love.

Past friends and supporters, dismayed by the way the campaign is now presenting Thompson as a hard-right tea partier, have argued that the campaign might do better if it would let Tommy be Tommy.

"They won't let him be Tommy anymore," laments former Republican staffer Bill Kraus.

To the Tommy gaffe connoisseur, son Jason's "back to Kenya" remark is of a different variety from vintage Thompson. It appeals to racists and conspiracy nuts--the angry element of the Republican base.

Vintage Tommy is not P.C--but he is always sunny.

The Kenya gaffe doesn't fit the profile. And, in fact, it may contribute to the problem Tommy is having lately.

"It could be Tommy is looking old and mean," says Kraus.

That image--bolstered by the same political consultants who are trying to keep Tommy "in the silo"--is a bigger problem than any single gaffe.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Joe Biden's Class Act."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter