Friday, September 21, 2012

Wisconsin U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Wisconsin U.S. Senate

September 21, 2012
46 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

What had been looking like a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans has taken a step back towards the Democrats in recent days. The question though is just how close the race may currently be. The Senate race in America's Dairyland is a Tossup now, but I have a hunch that campaign spending will even up in the final days and that the GOP can still pull off a close victory. The overall make-up of the U.S. Senate could hinge on this race.

Long the subject of retirement speculation, Democrat Herb Kohl made it official in the spring of 2011 when he announced he would not seek a fifth term in the Senate. A plethora of candidates on both sides of the aisle were talked about as potentials for the seat. Democrats have traditionally held the edge in Wisconsin Senate elections, but the 2010 midterm produced a big upset as a conservative first time Republican businessman candidate upset a veteran incumbent Democrat, who was a champion of liberal causes. That former Senator Russ Feingold decided not to try to reclaim a seat in the Senate, after seeming to indicate he wanted to do that in 2012 during his Election Night concession speech.

All the while, a nationally watched battle was brewing in the state over freshman Republican Governor Scott Walker and his public employee union reform efforts. When all was said and done in 2012, despite massive amounts of money and time spent on both sides, Walker was able to solidly fend off a recall challenge and kept his job. This was considered to be a major victory for the GOP, both in Wisconsin and nationally, and with the successful organizational efforts, there was much speculation that Democrats would be further harmed in the state, both in regards to the swing state Presidential voting and the open U.S. Senate seat. Wisconsin is still considered a key battleground in the Presidential race, especially considering Wisconsin  Congressman Paul Ryan is the GOP Vice Presidential nominee, but most polls out of the state in the past week show Democrats ahead by at least a few points. The race there between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in a state that has not gone Republican at the Presidential level since 1984, has to still be considered competitive and up in the air. Money, resources, and media attention look likely to continue to be a big part of the state's political landscape this fall.

The undercard features this very high-profile Senate race. After Feingold and some other Democrats declined to enter the race, party support quickly coalesced around Madison area Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, a staunch liberal, but someone who many feel has an appealing personality. Baldwin is the only openly lesbian person ever to serve in Congress and she would make further history if she is elected this year and becomes the Senate's first ever openly gay member.

While Baldwin was unopposed in her party's August primary, Republicans had a much more complicated and potentially damaging nomination process. The result of which though was pleasing to Republicans as they believed the most electable candidate was selected. Now 70 years old, Tommy Thompson was elected Governor of Wisconsin in 1986 and was reelected three times as he built a reputation as a popular and effective chief executive of the state. He left his job in Madison to become Secretary of Health and Human Services during the first term of President George W. Bush. After that experience, he sometimes talked about how he would like to make a comeback attempt for statewide office again in Wisconsin, but not many people took him seriously, especially after he made a brief and unimpressive bid for the GOP Presidential nomination in the year of 2007. Republicans were heartened though when he decided to run for the Senate for the first time ever, after many cycles of being speculated about. There was a sense that Thompson, who retained a positive image in the state had at least one last victory in him.

The field would not belong to him alone though as he would eventually have to defeat four candidates in the primary. They included the Speaker of the State Assembly and a former Congressman with Tea Party backing, who had once been the party's Senate nominee, and who had most recently lost a Gubernatorial primary. The candidate who would wind up posing the biggest threat to Thompson though was the formerly little known businessman Eric Hovde, who devoted large amounts of personal resources towards the race, and for a time looked like he could either win the nomination, or allow the former Congressman to do so, denying the spot to Thompson. In many ways, Hovde's profile resembled that of other outsider GOP candidates who had seen success (including Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson in 2010) and many worried if the seat would be much harder to pick up with someone other than the once overwhelming front-runner for the nomination Thompson. Critics said that Thompson was too old, too much of a relic from the past, and too moderate to win a competitive primary, but the split in a four way competitive primary bolstered him, along with establishment support (that included an on-stage shoutout of praise from Paul Ryan during his official homecoming rally in the state) and the former Governor prevailed by just over three percentage points.

After the August primaries, Republicans expected to need some time to pass before the damage of an at times negative primary healed, considering all the negative ads that had been run against Thompson. Somewhat surprisingly though, the GOP nominee emerged with a lead in the general election over Baldwin much earlier than some had anticipated, even looking well ahead in some surveys. Conventional wisdom began to settle in that Thompson was still too much of a mainstream favorite for a very liberal Congresswoman to defeat, in the midst of a great political fail on behalf of Democrats in the state just months earlier.

As mentioned at the outset though, things for whatever reason suddenly and quickly look far better for Baldwin and worse for Thompson than before. It appears that, having avoided a primary, her warchest and spending have outdone that of the Republicans, and it has taken a toll on Thompson's standing. One poll that had showed him nine points ahead now shows her ahead by that exact nine point margin, although the sample questioned appears to have significantly more Democrats surveyed than the earlier version, and probably includes way too many Democrats for what the eventual turnout is likely to be. Other polls from the past week though show results indicating an exact tie to Baldwin being up two to three points. Recent history from the 2012 recall Gubernatorial election had Republicans looking to be in trouble in the polls, before surging in the final days.

This is a case where if the election were held today, a slight edge would probably go to the Democrat Baldwin. Without  well over a month still to go though, nothing is a certainty. I expect Thompson to be able to spend more money down the stretch to both build back up his long-held positives and to inform voters more about Baldwin's views and voting records. While it is true that Wisconsin has elected liberals to the Senate before,  the state GOP may be more energized than it has ever been before, assuming supporters of the more conservative defeated Senate candidates rally around the nominee, in addition to an overall sense of Wisconsin not being quite as left as its former reputation. National party groups and outside organizations are likely to pour money into the state to support Thompson if they believe he needs the help and it is also true, that while it is likely that the Romney/Ryan ticket will contest Wisconsin to the end, if they believe their resources are better spent elsewhere in the state, that could also free up a lot of political manpower and money in the state that would then focus primarily on electing Thompson.

I will definitely keep an eye on the polls in the state, as debates occur and as we get close to Election Day. By no means was this ever a surefire GOP pickup, and it looks like it could be a nail-biter now, but as of today, I think that evidence exists that the recent polls out of Wisconsin are a bit too Democrat friendly, and that Thompson will be in position to win a close race. It's a very good thing for the GOP that despite his vulnerabilities, that he was nominated.

Thompson campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 18 D, 14 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 48 D, 51 R