The National Journal Big 10 is our look at the most pivotal Senate races. We’ll be checking in with them throughout the campaign. The list currently includes Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin—although it may change as the campaign unfolds.
It’s been 24 years since Wisconsin had an open seat in the U.S. Senate. In 1988, Democrat Herb Kohl, Milwaukee Bucks owner and namesake of the Kohl’s chain, won the seat of iconic departing Sen. William Proxmire, another Democrat. The race was one of the cycle’s closest and most expensive Senate contests.
The race to succeed Kohl, now 77, is also expected to be a hard-fought competition that will cost millions. On one side is Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin. On the other, a fluid Republican field without a clear front-runner, even though it includes a once-extremely popular former governor.
Wisconsin is a classic swing state. It went Democratic in the past six presidential elections, but in 2000 and 2004, the margins were slim. Barack Obama won there with 56 percent in 2008. Two years later, Republicans scored decisive wins at all levels, picking up a Senate seat, two House seats, and the governor’s mansion.
The outcome could well decide which party controls the Senate. President Obama, hoping to score another win atop the Badger State’s ticket, is already a campaign issue.
“With the Obama record front-and-center for the presidential race, the GOP Senate nominee looks set to run against [it],” said Charles Franklin, a visiting professor and polling director at Marquette University. “Tammy Baldwin has recently been speaking up for health care as well, so that issue may well be embraced by both sides. If that continues, then we’ll see a ‘nationalized’ race here rather than one with state issues dominating.”
Wisconsin voters are split when it comes to Obama, who returned in February following a yearlong absence. A Marquette University poll conducted in February showed a 50 percent job approval rating for the president, with 43 percent disapproval. But just a month earlier, the split was even, with 47 percent falling on each side.
A glance at the Senate field also illustrates why the race is shaping up to be equal parts Washington and Wisconsin. The candidates are a current member of Congress (Baldwin), a former member (Republican Mark Neumann), and a former Health and Human Services secretary and four-term governor (Republican Tommy Thompson). State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and businessman Eric Hovde are waging underdog campaigns for the GOP nod. The primary is on Aug. 14.
Thompson is the Republican establishment candidate. After 14 years as governor, his name recognition is unsurprisingly high. Yet many Republicans are not throwing out the welcome-back mat.
The Club for Growth has attacked Thompson ever since his name was first floated last year. The antitax group takes issue with Thompson’s support for an early version of Democrats’ health care overhaul that passed the Senate Finance Committee in 2009. Thompson has already rebuffed criticism with a TV ad that says he stands against the health care law.
The Club is backing Neumann, who also has the support of the political action committee of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a tea party godfather. Neumann, who served in the House from 1995 to 1999 and lost in the Republican primary for governor in 2010, is running as the conservative alternative to Thompson. He’s a businessman with the ability to loan his campaign millions of dollars, but is hardly an outsider to electoral politics.
Every Republican but Thompson hopes that 2010’s elevation of businessman Ron Johnson to the Senate is the new GOP norm and not a fluke. The tea party-backed, conservative Johnson felled the durable Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold relatively easily for a political novice—52 percent to 47 percent—but was not the party elders’ first choice as he didn’t even enter the ring until just before the deadline. National Republicans had huffed and puffed at Feingold every cycle, but it took an anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic wave to finally take him down. If those prevailing winds persist in November, no matter who the GOP nominee is, Baldwin, as the only incumbent in the race, could be equally susceptible.
Johnson, who is remaining neutral in the primary, said he took on Feingold because of his support for the health care law. Baldwin has made universal health care a defining issue of her congressional career. She sponsored the Health Security for All Americans Act that would have guaranteed coverage. She also is a leading congressional opponent of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Democrats are gleeful at the prospect of a brewing civil war on the GOP side; Republicans are equally bullish about running against Baldwin, who hails from liberal Madison and is the first openly lesbian member of Congress. Their refrain: She is one of the most liberal members of the House and has voted in lockstep with the party for Obama’s policies.
“She is so liberal she doesn’t fit,” Neumann told National Journal Daily. “I mean she just plain does not fit outside of Madison in the state of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin’s demographic makeup presents both Obama and Baldwin with the same challenges. Obama won 54 percent of the state’s overwhelming white majority vote in 2008, including 52 percent of whites without a college education, according to the 2008 National Election Pool exit poll by Edison/Mitofsky. In 2010, when Feingold lost his bid for a fourth term, he won just 48 percent of the white vote and just 40 percent of white voters without a college degree. The state’s minority population is only about 15 percent.
In the Marquette poll, 60 percent of voters with a college degree had a favorable opinion of Obama, compared with 42 percent among those with just a high school degree. Baldwin isn’t really a statewide figure yet, but her split is comparable: 31 percent of college graduates held a favorable opinion of Baldwin, compared with 16 percent of high school graduates who did.
Baldwin—who would make history if elected, not only as the first woman senator from Wisconsin but also as the first openly gay senator—is in a three-way tie for 21st most-liberal member of the House, according to National Journal’s 2011 vote ratings. Republicans routinely point to her 2010 rating, in which she was in a seven-way tie for the title of most-liberal House member. The seventh-term congresswoman insists that her focus on the economy should put to rest concerns about her political profile.
“As I campaign for U.S. Senate, folks are looking for a fighter for working- and middle-class families and for growing the Wisconsin economy with a particular focus on manufacturing,” Baldwin told National Journal Daily. “That’s what they’re hearing from me.”
One thing is clear: Baldwin’s fate in the Senate race is inextricably tied to Obama’s Badger State reelection prospects.
“With this president in particular, he inspires so many, and I have no doubt that we will see a very significant and impressive turnout,” she said.