On the evening of November 5, 2002, the election results began to roll in. A rainy election day had come to wash away the grime from an often-brutal gubernatorial race in Wisconsin, which had seen the candidates refer to each other as “crooked” and “absolutely disreputable.” Incumbent Republican Governor Scott McCallum, who had been in office scarcely two years, faced a strong challenge from long-time Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle. The race was a crucial turning point for Wisconsin, as it represented the first time in sixteen years iconic Governor Tommy Thompson was not on the ballot.

Merely a year earlier, Republican officials could only have dreamed about Doyle pulling a paltry 45% of the vote on election night. McCallum had suffered in Thompson’s shadow after Tommy had left to be Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush Administration. McCallum, saddled with a large budget deficit, sought to cut spending to local governments to make up the difference. Naturally, local officials, many of them Republicans, appeared all too willing to defenestrate McCallum in favor of the Democrat.

Yet on election night, Doyle’s poor showing did little to cheer up the GOP faithful. While the Democrat had fallen well short of the magic 50% mark, McCallum had pulled in a woeful 41%, losing to Doyle by nearly 66,000 votes. For the first time in sixteen years, Wisconsin would be led by a Democrat – and a long time bitter Thompson foe, at that.

The reason both major candidates together could only muster 86% of the total vote could be found in bucolic Tomah, Wisconsin (pop. 8,400). Former boxer, professional card player, tavern owner, and Tomah Mayor Ed Thompson had decided a year earlier to run for Governor in 2002. Thompson, a short, stout man with glasses so thick they looked like they could plausibly protect him from a bullet, had signed on with the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin in order to make his third party charge toward the state’s highest office. His sole qualification for the office of governor appeared to be that he once emerged from the same womb as his brother, Governor Tommy Thompson.

Thompson’s 2002 run for governor represented a perfect storm for a third party candidacy in Wisconsin. The Legislature was in the midst of a scandal that eventually led to leaders of both houses being convicted of felonies for crimes such as extortion, bribery, and using state offices for fundraising. The economic downturn of 2001 left voters skeptical of either party’s ability to deal with their financial troubles. By September 2002, 45 percent of Wisconsin residents felt the state was on the wrong track, up from 20 percent only three years earlier. Seventy-five percent of citizens believed lobbyists had more say in how the government spent money than voters did.

Of course, Thompson’s last name didn’t hurt either. As the brother of the state’s most beloved political figure, Ed Thompson had immediate name recognition throughout the state. Plus, it’s not entirely impossible that some voters may have actually confused Ed Thompson with his famous brother. Confusion over names at the polls isn’t exactly unprecedented—it is believed by some historians that Wisconsin’s first African-American legislator, Lucien Palmer, was elected in 1906 because voters confused him with another political Palmer, who was white. Lucien Palmer only lasted one two-year term, which may have been just enough time for voters to figure out their “mistake.”

Perhaps the most famous example of mistaken identity in Wisconsin politics occurred in 1970, when a Sheboygan gas station attendant Robert A. Zimmerman ran as a Democrat for the position of secretary of state. At the time, the incumbent secretary of state happened to be a popular Republican, Robert C. Zimmerman. Robert A. Zimmerman, who wasn’t allowed to speak during the campaign by his mentor Edmond Hou-Seye, won the Democratic primary against up-and-comer Tom Fox, presumably because voters confused him with the incumbent secretary. (Fox went on to become commissioner of insurance in Wisconsin.) Zimmerman, the mute gas station attendant, went on to lose to Zimmerman the secretary of state. Hou-Seye went on to run several ill-fated races for statewide office himself, coining the phrase “journalism is the science of distortion” along the way.

Wisconsin historically has been a sanctuary for third parties. It was in Wisconsin where Robert M. LaFollette, Jr. split the Progressive Party off from the GOP in 1934. That year, the Progressives won a landslide of state offices, including Philip LaFollette winning the governor’s office for the first time as a Progressive candidate. Milwaukee famously elected three Socialist mayors in the first half of the twentieth century, the only major city in the U.S. to have done so.

In recent years, third parties in Wisconsin have continued to affect statewide elections. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore defeated Texas Governor George W. Bush by 5,708 votes in Wisconsin. Gore’s margin of victory was actually less than the 6,640 Wisconsin votes cast for Libertarian Harry Browne for president in that same election. In the 2000 election, third party presidential votes numbered 116,445 in Wisconsin—nearly 20 times the size of Gore’s margin of victory. Everyone remembers the vote count debacle and subsequent court action in Florida following that presidential election, yet that charade would not have occurred had a small fraction of third party voters in Wisconsin shifted their votes to George W. Bush.

Strong third party voting in Wisconsin held true to form in 2004, when Senator John Kerry beat Bush by 11,384 votes. In that election, Wisconsin saw 26,397 votes cast for third party candidates. While well below the 2000 third party vote (due mostly to a drastically diminished Ralph Nader effort), the third party total still greatly exceeded the final margin of victory for Kerry.

Naturally, Ed Thompson wasn’t the only third party candidate in the field in 2002. Thompson was joined by 34-year-old Aneb Jah Rasta Sensas-Utcha Nefer-I, who insisted that he was already governor of Wisconsin. “I was born to rule, because God’s judgment will judge all unrighteousness,” said Sensas-Utcha, a native of Milwaukee. “I’m the damn governor of the State of Wisconsin.” To back up this claim, Sensas-Utcha pointed to several bills regarding E Coli that he had passed earlier. Unfortunately, he was unable to describe the details of this important legislation, claiming the press might be able to use it against him. Despite his previous hypothetical electoral success, Sensas-Utcha was only able to muster 929 votes statewide in November.

Thompson was also joined as a third party gubernatorial candidate by Mike Mangan, who campaigned wearing a gorilla suit. Mangan, a self-employed energy consultant from Waukesha, waged what he called a “guerilla attack against state spending.” Mangan criticized the state’s “King Kong deficit,” which is quite a coincidence since he happened to own a gorilla mask. (Fortunately for Mangan, the deficit wasn’t the size of a turtle, as he would have had to scramble for a new costume.) Mangan was actually a fan of Ed Thompson’s run, seeing it as a breakthrough for third parties in future races, saying, “I think he’s opening doors.”

These independent candidates represent only a small sliver of the colorful history of third party politicians in Wisconsin. In 1974, flamboyant West Milwaukee used car dealer James Groh legally changed his name to “Crazy Jim” to run for governor as an independent. Crazy Jim was a staunch advocate of legalized gambling, and frequently spun a tale of how he once played cards with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. At the time, the concept of legal gambling in Wisconsin seemed to be far-fetched—yet Crazy Jim turned out to be a visionary, as Wisconsin adopted a state lottery and welcomed almost unlimited Indian casino gambling by the 1990s. Crazy Jim lost to incumbent Patrick Lucey 629,000 votes to 12,100; but his family said he took solace throughout his life in the fact that he carried Waushara County. (Although he did not—records show he only garnered 47 votes in Waushara County, which placed him a distant fifth.) Crazy Jim died in 2002 of a heart attack.

In Madison, self-described “futurist” Richard H. Anderson has run for numerous offices, including state assembly, mayor, and city council. Anderson routinely ran on an “anti-mind control” platform, believing the government had planted a cybernetic chip in his brain. A self-described bisexual, Anderson fought for better treatment of minorities and, as a surprise to exactly no one, for legalized marijuana. “Just because I’m a pot head doesn’t mean I’m not qualified to hold office,” he once said. Unfortunately, the government rarely used mind control to direct voters to vote for him, as he once mustered a scant six votes in a race for the state Assembly against now-Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. Naturally, the Progressive Capital Times newspaper said Anderson had “made a good impression.”

(One has to wonder what a debate between a “pro-mind control” and “anti-mind control” candidate is like. Presumably, the “anti” candidate would get up to speak, the “pro” candidate would glare and point his finger at them, and the “anti” candidate would sheepishly sit back down without saying a word.)

Yet the candidacy of Ed Thompson in 2002 represented a breakthrough for independent candidates, who had previously been relegated to the scrap heap of oddities, curiosities, and also-rans. In early 2001, Thompson was a man without a party. Without the backing of a more established third party, a Thompson candidacy could have been viewed as a fringe endeavor and may have lost traction quickly.

Early that year, Thompson met with notorious independent Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura of Minnesota, who had been carried by his nationwide wrestling fame to victory in 1998. (Thompson would later joke that he should be called Ed “The Belly.”) The meeting was arranged by Bob Collison, leader of the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin. Soon thereafter, Thompson signed on as the official Libertarian candidate for governor of Wisconsin. It was a symbiotic relationship—the Libertarian tag gave Thompson the legitimacy his campaign needed, while Thompson gave the Libertarians a big enough name to finally make a splash in state politics.

Yet there remained an internecine struggle within the party between Libertarians who fundamentally subscribed to the Libertarian principles of limited government and those looking for statewide legitimacy in the electoral process. Clearly, Ed Thompson wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, although he espoused many of the dangers of government police powers. In the late 1990s, Thompson’s Tee Pee supper club was raided by authorities and four nickel slot machines were confiscated. He refused to cut a deal and plead guilty, and the charges were dropped when the county district attorney was voted out of office over the raid. Thompson said that one of his motivations for running for governor was to beat then-Attorney General Jim Doyle, whom he believes had ordered the raid on the Tee Pee.

However, this desire for deregulated gambling alone wasn’t enough to make him a Libertarian. As mayor of Tomah, Thompson governed as if he were any mayor of any small town in Wisconsin. His gubernatorial platform included more environmental regulation to preserve Wisconsin’s natural spaces and more money for the University of Wisconsin system. Thompson’s supporters bred more distrust among philosophical libertarians when they bitterly complained about Thompson not receiving enough public tax money to run his campaign—a concept anathema to those truly interested in restricting government spending.

Furthermore, as his running mate, Thompson signed up retiring Democratic Assembly Representative and former Ladysmith Mayor Marty Reynolds. While Reynolds described himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, throughout his twelve years as a representative he represented a reliable vote for Assembly Democrats when they sought to expand taxes and spending. Yet, as is required of Northern Democrats in Wisconsin, Reynolds was staunchly in favor of individual rights with regard to firearms and property. Before picking him as his running mate, Thompson said he had never actually met Reynolds—he had only read an editorial the representative had written decrying the “corruption” at the State Capitol. Thompson praised Reynolds’ experience as a legislator, saying he would be an “active participant” in his administration, instead of “playing basketball all the time”—a thinly veiled shot at McCallum, who was known for his hard court wizardry during his brother’s administration.

On November 15, 2001, at the State Capitol, Thompson officially announced his candidacy for governor of Wisconsin. He posited himself as the everyman candidate, saying:

I am no big time Charlie. I’m just a common hard-working man who is dedicated to serving the hard-working people of Wisconsin. I’m a fighter. I’ve been in the ring many times as a boxer and there is nothing I like better than a good fight. This is the biggest fight of my life, and I plan on winning it.

Having announced he was running, it was time for Thompson to mobilize his supporters. This included Libertarian Party of Wisconsin President Bob Collison, who had introduced Thompson to Jesse Ventura. Collison had recently garnered press attention for his opposition to the U.S. Census, believing the questions asked on their survey were too personal. (Collison would later leave the Libertarian Party to make an unsuccessful run for the Wisconsin State Assembly.)

Also in the mix was Wisconsin Libertarian Vice Chair Rolf Lindgren, who in November 2003 was accused of stealing $50 out of a bar apron at the Irish Waters Tavern in Madison. After being accused of stealing the cash, Lindgren was arrested for his fourth drunk driving violation. At his trial, he pleaded insanity, testifying that the stress caused by the police accusations related to the Irish Waters incident caused him to blow a .23 on the breathalyzer (11 times the legal limit for someone with three prior drunk driving arrests).

Lindgren also said he was feeling anxiety over appearing in a documentary about Ed Thompson’s life the next morning, and suggested that his arrest was retribution for his attempt to recall Jim Doyle from the governor’s office. Said Lindgren, “it doesn’t really matter why they [filed charges]. What really matters is that they did do it. If I were a black person, I’d be charging racism. What are they saying, all white people look alike?”

The charge against Lindgren for stealing the $50 from the tavern was dropped, as the Dane County District Attorney said the prosecuting attorney needed more time to prosecute the drunk driving charge. In 2006, a jury rejected Lindgren’s insanity plea and he was sentenced to five months in jail for driving while intoxicated.

With his campaign team mobilized, Thompson hit the road in his beat-up, 20-year-old motor home. In the week following his campaign announcement, he visited Waukesha, Wausau, Superior, Eau Claire, and Sparta. On the trail, Thompson’s policy agenda began to round into shape. He espoused the benefits of lower taxes and more local government control. He pushed for legalization of marijuana and for the release of nonviolent felons from prison. He argued for term limits that would limit governors and legislators to eight years in office.

However, Thompson most often used what he thought was his most powerful talking point—that government was corrupt and it was time for a third party candidate to change it. Eventually, discussion of policy issues merely faded into the background in favor of his corruption speech. When Thompson launched his first radio ads in April 2002, they focused on the ongoing criminal investigation of the Legislature. “Our state government is being tarnished by corruption,” Thompson boomed in the ad. “Enough is enough. It’s time to put the people’s interests above special interests. We need common sense and accountability in government,” he said.

At one point in May 2002, students at a campaign appearance at Rice Lake High School asked Thompson what a Libertarian was. “It means you have the right to live your life as you want, as long as you don’t physically hurt someone and no one physically hurts you,” he said. “It takes the business attitude of the Republican Party and the social attitude of the Democratic Party and improves them,” he added.

Later that day, at Bob’s Grill in Rice Lake, an 81-year-old patron asked Thompson what life was like in Washington D.C. “No, that’s my brother,” Ed Thompson politely replied. He then mentioned that he’s three years younger but ten years smarter than Tommy, and definitely better looking.

As the campaign wound into the oppressive Wisconsin summer months, Thompson was able to set himself apart from the other candidates in one regard: his yard and highway campaign signs seemed to outnumber his opponents’ by a fifty-to-one ratio. By September, Thompson had 850 large highway signs and 9,000 yard signs out the door. Thompson’s close ties to the Wisconsin Tavern League virtually guaranteed a black and yellow Ed Thompson sign would be in front of every bar in the state. In rural Wisconsin, those bars are often the centers of civic debate. Tommy Thompson’s exploits in local bars are often credited with catapulting him to statewide recognition. It seemed his little brother may be able to capture a little of the same plainspoken magic.

Meanwhile, the race between the major party candidates raged ahead. McCallum ran a television ad that accused Attorney General Doyle of being “crooked” for not aggressively pursuing corruption in the Legislature. Doyle volunteers held a “bingo party” at a Kenosha home for the developmentally disabled where there also conveniently happened to be absentee ballots available for residents to fill out on site.

As election day grew nearer, Thompson was finding it harder and harder to take his “common man” message to the voters. For one, he was having difficulty working his way into debates, which required a candidate to earn six percent of the total vote in the primary. Since Thompson ran unopposed in the Libertarian primary, he didn’t garner enough votes. He argued, accurately, that rather than waste their vote on him, his supporters likely voted in the contested primaries between the major candidates.

Eventually, Thompson filed a complaint with the State Elections Board, arguing his exclusion amounted to an illegal campaign contribution to the major candidates. He lost the complaint, but went on to take part in minor debates throughout October. Finally, on October 29th, he participated in a debate broadcast statewide. But by that point, the race between Doyle and McCallum had turned bitter and personal, and Thompson was left without much time to speak between the bickering.

When the dust settled on election night a week later, Thompson had received 10.5% of the vote. While it wasn’t nearly enough to win, it was the largest percentage any third party candidate for governor had received in sixty years. Watching the results at the Tee Pee, Thompson seemed upbeat. “We changed the face of politics in Wisconsin,” he beamed, adding, “We’ve made the third party viable.” Furthermore, reaching the 10% vote level meant that the Libertarian Party would be validated by having an official representative on the State Elections Board.

Thompson’s supporters, however, were confused as to why their candidate didn’t fare better. Following the election, Rolf Lindgren wrote an editorial claiming that Ed Thompson hadn’t been beaten by the voters; he had instead been beaten by the polls. In the column (in which he listed his credential as “1986 UW-Madison Mathematics Graduate,”) Lindgren expressed disbelief that Thompson only received 10.5% of the vote, when a poll prior to the election had Thompson’s approval rating at 39%. Since a candidate merely had to receive 34% to win the three-way election, Lindgren was confused as to why Thompson wasn’t able to garner enough support to emerge victorious. Apparently, he was unaware that approval ratings measure a candidate’s popularity against only themselves, while actual elections pit candidates against each other.

Lindgren went on to argue, as only a 1986 mathematics graduate could, that polls published during the campaign that showed Thompson with single digit support actually depressed his popularity. Lindgren believed the polls showing (accurately, as it turned out) Thompson with little support drove away individuals that normally would have been supporters. “In hindsight, if he had done a few more polls at key moments, and put out a few more polls-related press releases, he might have won the election,” said Lindgren.

The debate still rages in Wisconsin about whether Ed Thompson handed the state over to Jim Doyle by stealing votes from McCallum. Conventional wisdom tells us that since Libertarians are further to the right, they steal votes from Republicans. Thus, the GOP immediately groused that Thompson’s 10.5% vote total may have swung the race to the incumbent Governor had “Fightin’ Ed” not run.

The numbers seem to indicate that, even had Thompson not run, a McCallum victory would have been a long shot. When Thompson’s 185,000 votes are divided up, McCallum would have had to win 67.7% of them to overcome Doyle’s 66,000-vote margin. While it is true that Thompson did extremely well in GOP-dominated counties like his home Monroe County (Thompson 45%, McCallum 27%, Doyle 26%), Thompson also pulled substantial votes out of the city of Madison, likely due to his support for legalized marijuana. (It is estimated Thompson received 100% of the vote from the much sought-after “dudes who make late night trips to Taco Bell” demographic.)

Additionally, rather than merely being a Libertarian, Ed Thompson was a once-in-a-generation cult of personality. There’s no evidence that his votes were from people who lean Libertarian. It’s possible his votes were comprised of voters sick of the two parties generally and who recognized his family name as a safe haven for their vote. His addition of Marty Reynolds to the ticket may have made it even easier for Democrats to vote for him.

On the other hand, it is possible that Thompson pulled more votes from Republicans than Democrats. Aside from the votes on election day, Thompson’s entry into the race drew other types of resources away from the major candidates—he was able to raise and spend over $400,000, which may have favored McCallum, had Thompson not been able to get his hands on it. Furthermore, the curiosity of Thompson’s campaign took up media time that may have changed the face of the race had he not been in it (although given the press McCallum was getting at the time, it might have been better for him to get less coverage throughout the campaign).

Whether Ed Thompson gift-wrapped the 2002 election for Democrat Jim Doyle, we can never really know (although Doyle did defeat a strong Republican challenger, Republican Congressman Mark Green, in 2006). What we do know is that third parties in Wisconsin are a force to be reckoned with. While many regard third parties as a motley group of political nutballs, they have what the major candidates need—votes.

Given the proclivity of Wisconsin voters to cast their ballots for a third party, the 2008 presidential election could hinge on how well candidates relate to these third party voters. With Wisconsin’s traditional razor-thin margins of victory, the major candidate who appeals most to third party voters could be the one who emerges victorious. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama need to tap into the wealth of Wisconsin votes that could easily stray into third party territory. With big names like Former Congressman (and star of “Borat”) Bob Barr running as a Libertarian, Former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney seeking the Green Party nomination, and Ralph Nader doing whatever it is he does, independent voters could very well decide Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency.

In 2005, three years after his gubernatorial run, Ed Thompson was elected to the city council back in Tomah. The problem was, he didn’t know he was running. Thompson had benefited from a write-in vote effort of which he was unaware. After receiving 31 of 34 votes, he begrudgingly took office. In 2007, Thompson flirted with the idea of running for president himself after aligning himself with a group of “9/11 Truthers” who believe the U.S. government had a role in the September 11, 2001, attacks. In 2008, he was once again sworn in as Mayor of Tomah, assuming the comfortable position he had left to run for governor. It appears he is now content to be an important footnote in Wisconsin’s political history—one that major candidates should not soon forget.