Sept. 11 Becomes Issue In Wisconsin Senate Race

One of the most liberal members of the House, Wisconsin congresswoman Tammy Baldwin was not supposed to stand a chance in a statewide Senate run after she won the Democratic primary. And, a week out from the election, she remains in a tight race with former Governor Tommy Thompson for the open seat. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson has this report.

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We just heard about tight Senate races in Virginia and Ohio. Now, to one more in Wisconsin. Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is locked in a bitter campaign with Republican Tommy Thompson. He's a former governor and he served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Early in the race, Baldwin was considered a long shot, but throughout the fall, she's held a lead in the polls, a small lead.

Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson tells us more about the state of the race.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: For the past week, the eyes of the nation have been focused on Hurricane Sandy, but the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race has been focused on a different national catastrophe.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tammy Baldwin had the opportunity to vote to honor the victims of 9/11, and she voted against it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Tommy Thompson, he got a government contract to provide health care to 9/11 first responders, but Tommy took advantage...

JOHNSON: After months of debating issues like health care and the economy, Tommy Thompson abruptly changed course and accused Tammy Baldwin of disrespecting the victims of 9/11. She shot back with her own ad the next day, accusing Thompson of profiting off a mishandled government contract to provide health care to first responders.

The subjects are new to this race. The tone is not. Kantar Media Group's Ken Goldstein tracks political advertising nationwide. He says the Wisconsin Senate race has been the most negative in the country.

KEN GOLDSTEIN: Well, when you're at 99 percent, there's not much opportunity for many other races to be even more negative.

JOHNSON: Both candidates have tried to claim the middle ground. During a contentious four-way primary this year where he faced Tea Party challengers, Thompson courted conservative voters by embracing the Wisconsin GOP's favorite son.

TOMMY THOMPSON: I will pass Paul Ryan's budget plan in the Senate. It is the right plan at the right time for America.

JOHNSON: But in the general election campaign, Thompson has distanced himself from the vice presidential nominee.

THOMPSON: I've got a tax bill that is different than Paul Ryan's. You keep saying - putting me in with Paul Ryan.

JOHNSON: Baldwin had no primary. But for most of her career in Congress, she favored a single-payer government run universal health care law. She's since backed away from that and thrown her full support behind President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

TAMMY BALDWIN: Well, it's irrelevant. We have a bill that was passed. I worked on it. I voted for it. That's what our task is going forward.

JOHNSON: Every Thompson attack against Baldwin, no matter what the subject, finds a way to tell voters she's too liberal. State Republican Party Vice Chair Brian Schimming contends that argument will win the day.

BRIAN SCHIMMING: She is rated the most liberal member of Congress. He is rated as a more moderate to conservative, get-it-done governor. I think given those two choices, people will know where to come down.

JOHNSON: But Thompson has his own troubles. Democratic pollster Paul Maslin says voters don't like that Thompson used his government connections to make millions as a Washington consultant and a member of several corporate boards.

PAUL MASLIN: He made choices about what to do in his life after he left the office, and they've come back to haunt him.

JOHNSON: Here's something the candidates have not been talking about: If Baldwin wins, she'd be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Recent polls indicate a close race. Most show her slightly ahead.

Still, Wisconsin is the place where just five months ago conservative Governor Scott Walker won a decisive recall election. Republicans hope that momentum helps Thompson turn this purple state red.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

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