Wisconsin Democrats fear another debacle in November
PORTAGE, Wis. — Sen. Tammy Baldwin wants everyone to know she could lose.
It’s an unusual message for any candidate, but the liberal Democrat from Wisconsin is sounding the alarm after Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer effectively declared the first-term senator a favorite to keep her seat in November by leaving her off their lists of top-tier Senate races. After their pronouncements, major outside groups in both parties skipped Wisconsin in their initial $120 million of spending planned for this fall — triggering fears among state Democrats that the party will take victory for granted.
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But there’s palpable concern here among Democrats — and Baldwin especially — that Wisconsin is ripe for a repeat of 2016, when Donald Trump carried the state by less than a percentage point and GOP Sen. Ron Johnson surged to a surprise reelection behind a flood of late spending from conservative groups.
“My first reaction when somebody said Mitch McConnell said something about Wisconsin not being on the [list], I said tell that to the Koch brothers network. Please tell that to Richard Uihlein,” Baldwin said Thursday in an interview at a local diner after chatting with a few late-afternoon patrons. She was name checking top GOP donors who have already invested millions against her, despite the views of national party leaders.
Baldwin might have reason to worry. She’s the most liberal of the 10 Democrats up for reelection in states Trump won. She’s voted with the president just 22 percent of the time, the lowest among her 2018 colleagues, and is the only one to support Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. A near-constant refrain from Republicans is that she’s out of touch with her state — they say she represents only the “isthmus of Madison.”
Sanders (I-Vt.) will rally with Baldwin in the state this weekend, which has only fueled those attacks.
“She’s from the left wing of the left wing of the Democratic Party,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told a crowd of more than 100 Republicans at a Friday evening rally for one of Baldwin’s potential Republican opponents, state Sen. Leah Vukmir. “They’re actually advancing goofy ideas these days. It’s just crazy stuff, and that is exactly where Tammy is.”
Vukmir put a finer point on it: “She stands so far to the left that she makes Chuck Schumer look like a moderate, if that is possible.”
Despite the incoming, Baldwin, 56, has put herself in a relatively strong position to win. She’s been a hugely successful fundraiser, and polls show she has a substantial lead over both her potential opponents, who are slugging it out ahead of a mid-August primary. Baldwin is using the time to her advantage by doing a reelection two-step: counting on liberal enthusiasm and backlash against Trump in the deep-blue parts of the state, while holding small events throughout rural Wisconsin talking up her “America first” bona fides in a pitch to win over some blue-collar supporters.
“I wish more Republicans were like Trump on Buy American policies,” Baldwin said in the interview. She spoke with POLITICO a few hours after announcing, during a visit to a factory that traces its Wisconsin history to 1859, new legislation to ensure the use of American steel and aluminum in federally funded infrastructure projects.
Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin say the race continues to be overlooked nationally. With the possibility of defeating Democrats in states like Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, where Trump won by anywhere from 19 to nearly 40 percentage points, his 0.7 percent win in Wisconsin can seem insignificant. Plus, unlike the deep-red states, Wisconsin has population centers — in Madison and Milwaukee — that are heavily Democratic.
Baldwin has already faced millions of dollars in attack ads, and she lacks the bipartisan reputation that red-state Democrats like North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin enjoy. Hoping to improve her standing among independents, her campaign has spent $3.4 million on positive ads concerning health care, the opioid crisis and manufacturing. But a late June poll from Marquette University showed her with a 41 percent favorability rating vs. 43 percent of voters who view her unfavorably.
Chris Wilson, a GOP pollster working for Republican Kevin Nicholson’s campaign, said he understands why Republicans are prioritizing other states with more conservative voters than Wisconsin has. Still, he argued, the state is definitely in play.
“Baldwin is very vulnerable,” Wilson said.
Democrats agree. Thad Nation, a veteran consultant based in Milwaukee, said “we’d be fools to sit back and think this race was over.” He added: “We just went through this [in 2016]. We just lost.”
The nervousness stems from flashbacks to that 2016 loss and to the belief that Baldwin will again emerge as a top target for late outside spending. Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator who ran for his old seat in 2016, led Johnson by nearly double digits before a spectacular collapse in the final weeks of the race, triggered in part by a massive influx of conservative dollars. Democrats responded much too late.