With her victory in the Wisconsin Senate race on Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin made history on a number of fronts. Baldwin is the first woman elected to the Senate from the Badger State. After she is sworn in early next year, she will be the first openly gay or lesbian senator in the country's history. And she is the first person to defeat former Gov. Tommy Thompson in an election in 33 years.
With 73 percent of precincts reporting, CBS News and Fox News called the race with Baldwin leading Thompson 50 percent to 47 percent. Baldwin will succeed Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, who did not seek a fifth term.
Baldwin's victory is largely attributable to her campaign's success in redefining Thompson, who was elected governor four times. The Democrat ignored Thompson's gubernatorial record, which voters still view relatively fondly, and instead attacked Thompson's work since leaving the Governor's Mansion.
Thompson entered the general-election campaign considered the favorite against Baldwin, thanks to a long history of appealing to independents and moderate Democrats in previous races. He narrowly won the August GOP primary, beating back serious challenges from two opponents running to his right.
Almost immediately after Thompson won the nomination, Baldwin, who faced no opposition in the Democratic primary, went on the attack. Baldwin's campaign launched a series of ads focused on Thompson's post-gubernatorial work, arguing he had sold out to powerful special interest groups. The spots highlighted his time as President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services secretary, accusing Thompson of helping pharmaceutical companies receive a "sweetheart deal" under the Medicare Part D prescription-drug program that prevented the government from negotiating drug prices. Baldwin's team also keyed in on Thompson's work at Akin Gump, a top Washington lobbying firm. National Democratic groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Majority PAC, joined in, targeting Thompson with similar TV spots.
The ads’ effectiveness was heightened because Thompson's campaign was not on the airwaves several weeks following his primary win. The Republican spent all his funds in the last-minute push to win the GOP nomination, leaving his campaign scrambling to raise money to mount a general-election media campaign. While Thompson was off the air, Democrats savaged him, allowing Baldwin to open up a slight lead in the polls at the end of the summer.
Once he replenished his coffers, Thompson responded with a flurry of ads labeling Baldwin an extremist, highlighting her liberal voting record and linking her to President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Republican groups spent heavily on Thompson's behalf, as outside spending on the race topped $45 million. The polls narrowed in the fall, with many showing a dead heat or a slight Baldwin lead in the final weeks of the race.
But Baldwin's attacks had taken a serious toll on Thompson's once-stellar image in the state. In a Marquette Law School poll conducted in the days following Thompson's August primary win, 40 percent of likely voters had a favorable view of Thompson while 38 percent had an unfavorable view. In Marquette's last poll, conducted at the end of October, the percentage of likely voters with an unfavorable view of the former governor had skyrocketed to 51 percent while 38 percent still had a favorable view of the Republican.
Political observers in Wisconsin originally thought Thompson would outrun Mitt Romney by around 5 percentage points. But the former governor's damaged image, as well as the highly polarized nature of the state, erased that advantage. Early exit polls showed Thompson running just 1 percentage point stronger than the Republican presidential nominee.
For Thompson, the loss marks what will likely mean a disappointing end to one of the most storied political careers in the state's history. The legacy of his many policy accomplishments from his time as governor, from welfare reform to the establishment of Badgercare, remains intact. But the Republican lost his first race in three decades because Baldwin and her team significantly changed the way voters looked at him. And the rest is history.