Control of the U.S. Senate may hinge on the race in Wisconsin between Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and former governor Tommy Thompson.
That’s a big change from a few months ago, when it seemed all but certain that the Democrats would lose seats and possibly their Senate majority. But all across the country things are looking better for Democrats. Thanks to the strength of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Todd Akin’s nuttiness in Missouri, and a changing national political dynamic, attention has shifted to Wisconsin.
“The Republicans absolutely have to have Wisconsin if they’re going to get control of the U.S. Senate,” says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin.
The National Journal concurs. Political columnist Josh Kraushaar wrote that the formula for Democrats staving off a Republican Senate takeover includes holding onto retiring Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl’s seat, which has been Democratic since 1957.
In late September, the Senate race suddenly shifted in Baldwin’s favor. The candidate Republicans had counted out as a little-known Madison liberal surged in polls by Marquette Law School, Public Policy Polling, and Quinnipiac University, ahead of the state’s longest-serving governor, Thompson, whose name recognition in the state is on a par with Miller beer.
The race is likely to tighten back up, as Thompson, who spent himself dry in a contentious three-way primary, reloads and begins to run ads. (Tammy, who was unopposed in the primary, started the fall with $7.1 million to Tommy’s $2.5 million.)
“Those polls are great news,” Baldwin told a small group of supporters gathered in a friend’s living room recently. “But,” she cautioned, “they also put a big target on Wisconsin.”
Get ready for lots of attacks by outside groups, thanks to “unlimited spending and secretive dollars,” she told the group. She urged her friends to get out and tell people who see “these horrible attack ads” that they “know somebody different.”
Even as she spoke, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS was dumping $961,000 into the state for a single week of anti-Baldwin ads. The next week, the group put in another $2.1 million.
Rove’s ads feature scenes of the Wisconsin protests against Governor Scott Walker, and—full disclosure—footage of Baldwin speaking at a Progressive magazine event at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre, pounding the podium and shouting, “Damn right, we’re making a difference!”
Wisconsin captures, in microcosm, much of the political upheaval in the country this year.
The Democrats gave Tammy Baldwin a Thursday night speaking slot at their convention in Charlotte “to draw a contrast with the Wisconsinites we heard from the week before at the Republican convention,” Baldwin says.
Her message was in tune with a Democratic convention that got a big bump by focusing on progressive values: rescuing the auto industry, defending the middle class, protecting Medicare and Medicaid, and, surprisingly, supporting gay rights—nearly every speaker mentioned marriage equality.
Baldwin, fifty, would be the first out lesbian elected to the Senate. She sees gay rights as part of Democratic values: “The theme is fairness,” she says. Whether it’s fair trade or “basic fairness on the federal law on marriage, or someone’s ability to serve openly in the military without having to lie about who they are or having one set of rules for the wealthy and another for everyone else,” she says, “it boils down to basic issues of fairness.”
She hit on the same theme when she spoke at a rally for President Obama at the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee.
She got a huge cheer as she walked up to the podium in her red vest. “This is such an exciting end to such an exciting week,” she said. “I never thought I’d be able to say I opened for the President at Summerfest.”
Out in the crowd, demand outstripped the supply of “Forward!” signs handed out by Obama campaign volunteers.
“Forward!” is the state motto of Wisconsin.
In this, and in the progressive tone of his remarks, President Obama made an energetic appeal to his base in this closely divided state. And Baldwin played an important part.
It was, as Baldwin pointed out, a great week for the Democrats. Not only were both Baldwin and Obama up in the polls, but Mitt Romney seemed to have handed the Democrats a campaign theme that neatly defines the ideological difference they most want to highlight—between a party determined to serve the interests of the rich and one that is more concerned with the well-being of the majority of working people.
“President Obama is fighting for all Americans, while Mitt Romney writes off half the nation,” Tammy summarized.
Tammy spent a lot of her speech bashing unfair trade with China, a theme with particular resonance in blue-collar Milwaukee.
“The only time our opponents have been on a factory floor is when they’re making another misleading ad,” Baldwin declared. “Mitt Romney never stood up to China. Instead, he’s profited from sending our jobs there.”
Baldwin has a consistent voting record supporting unions and opposing trade deals like Most Favored Nation status for China and CAFTA that puts her to the left of Obama.
But the President picked up on her pro-fair-trade theme in his own speech. His plan to improve the economy and strengthen the middle class, Obama said, “starts by exporting more products and outsourcing fewer jobs.”
Referring to the auto industry rescue, Obama said, “What we did for autos we want to do for manufacturing across the board.”
A progressive member of Congress since 1998, who sees herself in the tradition of Fighting Bob La Follette, Baldwin voted against the repeal of the New Deal Glass-Steagall banking law during the Clinton Administration “because I didn’t think Wall Street should write its own rules.” She introduced the Buffett Rule because “it’s unfair that someone in the top 1 to 2 percent doesn’t pay their fair share,” she says. She opposed the Iraq War. She championed universal health care and wrote part of the Affordable Care Act allowing parents to keep their adult children on their health insurance.
Among Republicans, “Tommy is probably the single one who most exemplifies someone who has been fighting for big special interests in Washington,” says Baldwin.
When he left Wisconsin to work as George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Baldwin points out, Tommy helped craft Medicare Part D, “a sweetheart deal for the drug companies.” Part of his job was “overseeing the writing into federal law a prohibition against bargaining for better prices,” she notes. After he left the Bush Administration, Baldwin adds, Thompson joined a firm that lobbies for many of the same health care interests whose water he carried in Washington.
“The fact that Tommy Thompson is part of the crowd that tries to create a separate set of rules for his powerful friends is significant,” Baldwin says. “That resonates particularly this year.”
“She’s hitting Tommy Thompson on what he thinks is his strongest point,” says Common Cause’s Heck. “One thing people always thought about Thompson, love him or hate him, is he sort of epitomized Wisconsin.”
Tammy’s ads (“Tommy Thompson, he’s not for you anymore,” the narrator says in one of them) have “cast some doubt about whether he is still connected to Wisconsin the way he was in the ’90s,” Heck adds.
Mitt Romney isn’t helping him, either, as Thompson himself acknowledged in late September. Conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times says Romney has a Thurston Howell problem, and Thompson now has one himself.
Having made millions cashing in on his contacts from a career in public life, he now refuses to release his tax returns.
During the Republican convention in Tampa, Thompson held a fundraiser on a yacht moored near the convention center.
Haley Barbour was on board, along with Governor Scott Walker.
The setting, featuring an elephant topiary, clinking wine glasses, and good cheer all around, was perfect for the task in hand: raising lots of money.
“There is plenty of money for this election,” John Cornyn, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, told the laughing attendees. “The problem is, some of it is still in your pockets.”
Another big problem for Thompson is that to win the Republican primary, he underwent a drastic makeover as a tea partier. When he woke up from a nap and decided to run for the Senate, the rightwingers who had taken over his party thought they’d make short work of him.
Tommy did, in fact, as his primary opponents charged, praise Obama’s health care reform. When he was governor, he launched BadgerCare to provide health insurance to thousands of low-income parents and their children all over the state. He introduced SeniorCare to get low-cost prescription drugs to the elderly. And unlike the current breed of rightwing Republicans in Wisconsin, who love to bash the idea of a railroad line connecting Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis, and turned away $800 million in federal funds to do just that, Tommy served on the board of Amtrak and proudly advocated high-speed rail.
A Republican who supports infrastructure and health care for the poor? Heresy!
Former Congressman Mark Neumann, a free market fundamentalist, and his former staffers at the national anti-tax group Club for Growth, took out after Tommy with a vengeance, running ads showing him with Obama.
It seemed, for a time, as if Neumann’s campaign of destruction would help win the Senate race for Eric Hovde, the attractive but relatively unknown hedge fund manager who lived most of his adult life in Washington, D.C.
Club for Growth ran ads against Hovde, too (not radical enough). But Hovde’s money and his endorsement by the Tea Party PAC gave him a temporary edge.
To stay in the game, Tommy was reduced to running against his favorite programs—trains and health care—doing his best imitation of a Tea Party stalwart.
But it hurt him, says old Thompson friend Bill Kraus, co-chair of Common Cause Wisconsin, who once worked for Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus. “Maybe he’s paying a price,” says Kraus. “They’re not going to let him go back to being Tommy. He’s not Tommy anymore.”
Kraus was saddened that Tommy sounded so aggressively rightwing, and stopped talking about “his love affair with Wisconsin.”
“He resented being called not a conservative. But he was an activist. These guys [the tea partiers] are anarchists,” Kraus says.
“I told him every time I saw him, ‘Tommy, we’re still here,’ ” Kraus says—meaning moderate Republicans.
Many of Kraus’s colleagues and associates now call themselves “former Republicans,” he adds: “If we went to the Republican convention, we would be booed out of the hall.”
Thompson may be one of the last of his kind as a Republican with moderate, bipartisan tendencies. And his old-style, hail-fellow-well-met politics may help him in the final stretch.
“I want you to drink a beer tonight,” Tommy declared the night he won the Republican primary. That’s the Tommy most people in Wisconsin can relate to.
Like Romney, Tommy is now trying to have it both ways: Touting his statewide health initiatives (which the Tea Party hates) even as he sticks by the Paul Ryan budget and Medicare voucher plan.
The Thompson campaign took the low road in early September when it sent out an e-mail of a video of Baldwin dancing (rather stiffly) on stage with a band at a gay pride event. It was a departure from Tommy’s careful avoidance of such attacks in the past, and Thompson ended up issuing an apology and saying he didn’t know about it.
As Karl Rove takes a bigger role in the race, there may be more such attacks.
But the truth is, Thompson doesn’t want to go down that road.
People who know Baldwin know her as a very sincere, A-student, class-president type ever since her days as the youngest member of the Dane County Board. Tommy, on the other hand, enjoys a party, and might not want to run a campaign based on clean living.
(“Judging by his hammered acceptance speech, I’m not sure Tommy Thompson fully grasps campaigning in the age of YouTube,” Twitter user WisconsinDefender quipped about Tommy’s victory party on primary night.)
If he continues to go harshly negative against Baldwin in the next few weeks, Tommy might turn people off.
“It could be Tommy is looking old and mean,” Kraus says. “He didn’t look either of those things in the ’90s. You can’t get younger, but you could get less contentious and more Tommy.”
During the first debate, Thompson failed to take Kraus’s advice. “I’m not in Congress. You are!” he snarled at Baldwin. “All she can do is try to get people in Wisconsin not to like me,” he huffed, letting his hurt feelings show.
Then, after a poignant answer by Tammy on marriage equality, Tommy suddenly and inappropriately exploded. The subject was Asian carp. “I’m absolutely surprised!” he said, glaring. “That’s the first time I haven’t been blamed for something, or George W. Bush.”
Some Republicans still think Tammy is the perfect target—a Dane County lesbian liberal. But, Heck cautions, “She has always been underestimated, ever since she ran her first race.”
Tammy is a disciplined campaigner and a very effective fundraiser. Her top contributor, in her last filing, was EMILY’s List at $216,000. Other big contributors were labor unions, the League of Conservation Voters, JStreetPAC, and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. Tommy’s top contributor was the Fortune 500 health care company Centene Corp ($42,500), heading a long list of corporations including Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly & Co., and Aurora Health Care.
“We need to elect Tammy Baldwin the next U.S. Senator because we need strong progressives to put pressure on the White House,” says National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill. “Believe me, the White House gets a lot of pressure from the other side.”
Baldwin’s brand of progressive politics could help energize the Democrats’ national campaign this year. In fact, says Heck, “The question in Wisconsin is whether Obama helps her or she helps Obama.”
The Obama campaign recently sent Kal Penn to hit the trail with Tammy on college campuses in Wisconsin. Penn, the actor of Harold & Kumar fame, served as the White House liaison to young people and was also a featured convention speaker who cheered his President for being “cool with all of us getting gay married.”
If Baldwin and Obama win, it will be proof that gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and a robust defense of unions and blue-collar, manufacturing jobs are majority values.
If Thompson and Romney win, it won’t be so clear what values the Republican Party represents—except tax cuts for the rich and a backward view of women and gay people.
“It’s a different party,” Kraus says. “It’s not a healthy party. And if the face of the party is social issues, it’s not going to survive.”
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.
 Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff  on Twitter