Republicans Launch Early Attack on Tammy Baldwin

The party is pushing to make the Tomah VA scandal a key issue in the Wisconsin Democrat’s reelection.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the spin room after a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2016
AP Photo/Tom Lynn
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
March 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

One of the ugli­est is­sues that roiled Wis­con­sin’s Sen­ate race last year will soon pop up again in Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tammy Bald­win’s reelec­tion.

Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­ans this week will launch their first sus­tained at­tack against Bald­win on the is­sue of the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Med­ic­al Cen­ter in Tomah, Wis­con­sin, ac­cus­ing her of fail­ing to ad­dress prob­lems at the fa­cil­ity. The ef­fort in­cludes di­git­al ads blast­ing the sen­at­or and Demo­crats, a sur­rog­ate cam­paign with elec­ted of­fi­cials in the state who are vet­er­ans, and a co­ordin­ated push of let­ters to the ed­it­or, ac­cord­ing to a Re­pub­lic­an fa­mil­i­ar with the plans.

The tac­tic comes after the Tomah VA played a key role in Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ron John­son’s reelec­tion last cycle, when out­side groups waged a vi­cious battle over the way both John­son and his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent, former Sen. Russ Fein­gold, handled is­sues there. John­son won the race, in the most sur­pris­ing Sen­ate up­set of the cycle.

Re­pub­lic­ans have long pegged Bald­win, a first-term sen­at­or, as a top tar­get. But GOP strategists said they be­lieve Pres­id­ent Trump’s sur­pris­ing vic­tory in the state, along with two suc­cess­ful midterm elec­tions there, have en­hanced their pro­spects even with no de­clared can­did­ate at this point.

The party could face a crowded and di­vis­ive race to take on Bald­win, fol­low­ing the de­cision of Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Sean Duffy, a lead­ing po­ten­tial can­did­ate, to pass on a Sen­ate bid last month. Mul­tiple Re­pub­lic­ans—busi­ness­man Kev­in Nich­olson, state Sen. Leah Vuk­mir, state Rep. Dale Kooy­enga, state Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Scott Fitzger­ald, and 2012 can­did­ate Eric Hov­de—are now openly con­sid­er­ing bids, a situ­ation Re­pub­lic­ans hoped to avoid after a messy GOP fight in 2012 hobbled their nom­in­ee’s chances against Bald­win.

One key dif­fer­ence between the Tomah at­tacks of this cycle and last, Re­pub­lic­ans noted, is that their nom­in­ee likely can­not be eas­ily tied to wrong­do­ing at the fa­cil­ity, which was plagued by a paink­iller-ab­use scan­dal. And as vet­er­ans, Fitzger­ald, Nich­olson, and Kooy­enga could of­fer a unique per­spect­ive.

Bald­win has come un­der scru­tiny in the past for her hand­ling of prob­lems at Tomah. In 2015, it was re­por­ted that the sen­at­or sat on an in­spec­tion re­port de­tail­ing prob­lems there. Bald­win ac­know­ledged that mis­takes were made and fired a top state staffer over the is­sue, prompt­ing eth­ics com­plaints. The Sen­ate eth­ics pan­el dis­missed all of them.

“She can try to avoid ac­count­ab­il­ity all she wants, but Wis­con­sin voters have shown they’re fed up with lib­er­al Wash­ing­ton in­siders who re­fuse to chal­lenge the status quo and have been part of the prob­lem for dec­ades,” Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an Party spokes­man Alec Zi­m­mer­man said.

Bald­win al­lies con­ten­ded that par­tis­an at­tacks over the Tomah VA will back­fire, point­ing to the is­sue’s sens­it­iv­ity. Deaths have been tied to the over­prescrib­ing of paink­illers at the cen­ter, where sev­er­al top lead­ers have since been ous­ted.

Wis­con­sin Demo­crats also ar­gued that Bald­win has act­ively taken steps to com­bat the cen­ter’s prob­lems, in­clud­ing her work on opi­ate-safety le­gis­la­tion signed in­to law last year.

“Sen­at­or Bald­win has not let these polit­ic­al at­tacks dis­tract from the im­port­ant work she has done work­ing with Wis­con­sin vet­er­ans and their fam­il­ies to bring re­form to the VA,” Bald­win spokes­man Scott Spect­or said.

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