Thompson would not only be the oldest Wisconsin governor to take office but also do so with the sixth largest gap in service for the office in U.S. history

Earlier this week, former four-term Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson stated that he had not ruled out running for the state’s highest elected office once again this year.

Thompson’s last campaign was at the age of 70 when he was the GOP nominee for an open U.S. Senate seat won by U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin.

Thompson officially launched that campaign on December 1, 2011 but said he won’t make a final decision to enter the 2022 gubernatorial race until April of this year – just four months before the primary – at the age of 80.

First-term Governor Tony Evers faces his own challenges. As previously reported by Smart Politics, Wisconsin Democrats have lost a staggering 32 of the last 33 elections for governor when a Democrat resides in the White House dating back to 1855, and President Joe Biden’s approval rating is currently not doing any favors for Democratic incumbents running for reelection this year.

Should Governor Thompson run for a fifth term, he’d first have to dispatch with former GOP Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch in the early August primary.

If he manages that feat and subsequently defeats Evers in November, Thompson would become the oldest Wisconsinite to take the office in history, the second to serve nonconsecutive terms, and – perhaps most noteworthy – own one of the largest gaps in gubernatorial service in the nation’s history.

A victorious Thompson would take office on January 2, 2023, or 21 years, 11 months, 1 day since he left office in February 2001 when he was appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration.

That would be the sixth largest gap in service between nonconsecutive terms for United States governors with three of the Top Five occurring within the last 30 years.

West Virginia Republican Cecil Underwood leads the way with the largest time between terms at 35 years, 11 months, and 28 days.

After Underwood left office in 1961, he made several attempts to win back his old seat – losing the general election of 1964, the GOP primary of 1968, and the 1976 general election before finally defeating former Democratic state legislator Charlotte Pritt in 1996’s open seat race nearly three-dozen years after holding the governorship.

The remaining four governors are:

  • Kentucky Democrat James McCreary: McCreary won his first four-year term in 1875 and saw 32 years, 3 months, and 10 days pass between exiting the seat in 1879 and taking office after winning the Election of 1911. In the interim, he served six terms in the U.S. House (1885-1897) and one term in the U.S. Senate (1903-1909).
  • California Democrat Jerry Brown: Brown took office for his third term in 2011 – exactly 28 years after he left office following his second term in 1983.
  • New Jersey Republican Walter Edge: Edge’s first three-year term was cut a bit short in 1919 after winning the 1918 U.S. Senate election. Edge resigned in May 1919 but would return to his gubernatorial seat for a second three-year term in 1944 following his double-digit victory in November 1943 – a gap of 24 years, 8 months, and 3 days.
  • Alaska Republican Wally Hickel: Hickel left office before the end of his first term in January 1969 after being appointed Secretary of the Interior under Richard Nixon. Hickel was out of office for 21 years, 10 months, and 4 days until his 1990 open seat victory as the Alaska Independence Party nominee. Hickel had losing gubernatorial bids three times during that two-decade plus span in 1974, 1978, and 1986.

Only one other governor logged 20+ years between gubernatorial terms: Oklahoma Republican Henry Bellmon (1963-1967, 1987-1991) recorded 20 years and four days between his first and second terms.

Overall, more than 140 governors have served interrupted terms in U.S. history.

The only Wisconsin governor to do so thus far is Philip La Follette. La Follette had a two-year pause out of office between losing his 1932 bid for a second term as a Republican to Democrat Albert Schmedeman and then defeating Schmedeman as the Progressive nominee in 1934.

The oldest Wisconsinite to serve as governor is Republican Walter Goodland. Goodland was 80 years and 13 days old when he took office in January 1943 following the post-1942 election death of Progressive gubernatorial victor Orland Loomis. [Note: Goodland was the sitting lieutenant governor and had been reelected to a second term that cycle].

Thompson would be 81 years, 1 month, and 14 days old should he be sworn into office in January 2023.

Goodland served as governor until his death at 84 years, 2 months, and 18 days at the beginning of his third term in March 1947.

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5 Comments

  1. Flickertail-Pembina on January 16, 2022 at 8:25 am

    SATURDAY post…(actually becoming more accustomed to it – as light weekend reading).

    In his public ruminations, Thompson may well be inspired by President Biden (who is intending to stand for another term, and a contemporary of his), “Jerry” Brown (aside from a long interregnum, each lost one US senate bid as the nominee of his party), and former United States Ambassador to PRC Branstad (who had served 6 non-consecutive terms as governor in adjoining IA).

    If Kleefisch and Thompson both end up contesting for the nomination, the would-be intramural tussle is poised to be yet another determinant – whether the party will strive to have more officeholders like “Ron” Johnson (Kleefisch!) or John Thune (Thompson?!) at the non-federal level.



  2. John Chessant on January 16, 2022 at 7:13 pm

    Also worth a mention is James Fenner, who was governor of Rhode Island on three occasions (1807-1811, 1824-1831, 1843-1845). The gap between the end of his first tenure and the start of his third tenure was 32 years, a few months short of McCreary’s mark.

    James Fenner was the son of Arthur Fenner, who had been governor from 1790 to 1805, one of the few who had a longer *continuous* governorship than Tommy Thompson. The others are George Clinton (NY, 1777-1795), Terry Branstad (IA, 1983-1999), Albert Ritchie (MD, 1920-1935), Nelson Rockefeller (NY, 1959-1973), and Rick Perry (TX, 2000-2015). Perry had a longer governorship than Thompson by a mere two days.



    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on January 16, 2022 at 7:27 pm

      Indeed. A few handfuls of governors have served with two interruptions in service (though not quite spanning all those decades as Fenner) including South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, Massachusetts Marcus Morton, Illinois’ Richard Ogelsby, Colorado’s Alva Adams, Arizona’s George Hunt (who technically had three interruptions), New Jersey’s Arthur Moore, Louisiana’s Earl Long, New Mexico’s Ed Mechem, Alabama’s George Wallace, New Mexico’s Bruce King, and Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards.



  3. John Chessant on January 16, 2022 at 7:18 pm

    Thompson, should he run, would join several HEW and HHS secretaries who ran for office after their term in the cabinet. Abraham Ribicoff was elected to the U.S. Senate the same year he left HEW, and Donna Shalala was elected to the U.S. House 18 years after leaving HHS. Two of Nixon’s HEW secretaries, Robert Finch and Elliot Richardson, ran for the U.S. Senate but lost the Republican primary, while Patricia Roberts Harris ran for mayor of Washington, D.C. but lost the Democratic primary. Of course, Thompson himself is in this list already after losing a U.S. Senate election in 2012.

    Thompson would also be attempting to follow Cecil Andrus and Wally Hickel in the governor-to-cabinet-to-governor path. Since Hickel’s election in 1990, Bill Richardson and Andrew Cuomo have been the only former cabinet secretaries elected governor; Mitch Daniels also held cabinet rank as OMB director. Some examples of cabinet-level officials who later lost an election for governor are James P. Mitchell (NJ, 1961), Fred Seaton (NE, 1962), Arthur Goldberg (NY, 1970), Andrew Young (GA, 1990), and Janet Reno (FL, 2002). Bill Daley briefly ran for governor of Illinois in 2014 against incumbent Pat Quinn, but withdrew. The 2022 cycle is certain to add at least one more cabinet secretary to this list, as both labor secretary Tom Perez and education secretary John King, Jr. are currently running for governor of Maryland.

    Another noteworthy aspect of Thompson’s potential run is that he would be one of a few active politicians, and likely the only state governor, who have held elected office since the 1960s; if he were to win and serve a full term, he would exit the governorship in 2027 sixty years after he entered the state assembly in 1967. Some members of Congress have service in elected office spanning these seven decades: Ben Cardin, Steny Hoyer, Jim Inhofe, and Don Young were all first elected to a state legislature in 1966; Young was also elected mayor of Fort Yukon, Alaska in 1964. Pat Leahy and Hal Rogers were elected state’s attorneys in 1966 and 1968, respectively. Dianne Feinstein was elected as a San Francisco supervisor in 1969 but did not take office until 1970. [Among those first elected to office in 1970 is current president Joe Biden, who was a member of the New Castle County council from 1971 to 1973.] And there is one current member of Congress with elective service spanning *eight* decades: Chuck Grassley was first elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1958.



    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on January 18, 2022 at 10:05 am

      Those are interesting facts/tidbits, John – thank you for compiling and posting!