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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