At a small gathering of supporters in late September, longtime friends of U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin were charged up about the latest polls on the Wisconsin Senate race, showing the congresswoman beating former Gov. Tommy Thompson by a significant margin.
"Those polls are great news," Baldwin told the happy group assembled in a supporter's living room. "But," she cautioned, "they also put a big target on Wisconsin."
Beware the coming attacks, thanks to "unlimited spending and secretive dollars," Baldwin warned.
Even as she spoke, the anti-Baldwin ads were starting.
Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS has put about $5 million into the race - more than any other outside group. Rove's ads feature footage of Baldwin speaking at the Barrymore Theatre during the Wisconsin protests against Gov. Scott Walker.
"You're damn right we're making a difference!" Baldwin says, looking uncharacteristically fierce.
Crossroads GPS is also behind a robocall that attempts to scare Wisconsin voters about the effects of President Barack Obama's health care reform law: "Tammy Baldwin voted for Obamacare, which will cut $9.46 billion in Medicare payments in Wisconsin alone. Medicare Advantage enrollees in Wisconsin could be reduced by 45%. And, under Obamacare, 15 unelected bureaucrats could restrict access to medical treatment and care of Wisconsin seniors."
(PolitiFact and FactCheck.org have debunked similar claims about Obamacare in other states. The new law neither restricts benefits nor modifies Medicare eligibility.)
The Crossroads ads accusing Baldwin of saying that Obamacare "didn't go far enough" are more accurate. Baldwin has long supported universal health care. And there is truth to Thompson's claim that Baldwin is "the most liberal member of Congress."
"She is so out of the mainstream her own party doesn't pass her legislation," Thompson says.
But Baldwin's progressive record in Congress since 1998 is one reason her supporters are so excited about her.
'The theme is fairness'
Cheri Maples, an ex-police captain, lesbian, social justice activist and Buddhist dharma teacher, who cohosted the meet-and-greet in Madison, praised Baldwin's early, courageous stands on expanding access to health care, regulating Wall Street and opposing the Iraq War.
Baldwin also introduced the Buffett Rule because she says "it's unfair that someone in the top 1% to 2% doesn't pay their fair share"; wrote the part of the Affordable Care Act allowing parents to keep their adult children up to age 26 on their health insurance; and has long been an advocate of fair trade, voting against trade deals that disadvantage U.S. manufacturing.
Baldwin, 50, who would be the first out lesbian elected to the Senate, sees gay rights as part of Democratic values. "The theme," she says, "is fairness...on the federal law on marriage, or someone's ability to serve openly in the military without having to lie about who they are, or having one set of rules for the wealthy and another for everyone else."
Mike Bacsi, a local banker who cohosted the event in Madison, says he has known Baldwin for 20 years and likes her position on social issues and her dedication to the community.
"Today she was very clear in talking about the big banks being a problem," he says. "At the same time, I know she supports community banking and regional businesses in Wisconsin."
About 15 years ago, Bacsi was interviewed by The Capital Times as he was leaving his polling place. "I said I'd take a bullet for Tammy," he recalls.
The quote appeared in the newspaper, which led to an awkward conversation with his employer.
"The big boss at M&I, where I worked at the time, said, 'So, are you going to put Plexiglas in your windows?'"
This year, Bacsi says, he is fired up about seeing yard signs even in red parts of the state supporting Baldwin. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
Privately, even Baldwin's hardcore supporters expressed surprise when she gained so much ground on Thompson so quickly - by 6% to 9% in two September polls. After all, her opponent, the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history, has name recognition around the state on a par with Miller Beer.
After emerging victorious from a bruising three-way primary, Thompson seemed positioned to win the Senate race in a walk. But he had spent all his money at the start of the general campaign, and couldn't answer Baldwin's ads. That hurt him.
Thompson's politics date to a less divisive era. There's plenty of reason to think even voters who don't like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would support him.
As governor, Thompson, 70, got along fine with the teachers union. He created BadgerCare, expanding health care to low-income families, and helped craft SeniorCare, making prescription drugs affordable for the elderly. He presided over a 14-year economic expansion. Most of all, Thompson is known, statewide, as a huge Wisconsin booster.
"Tommy knows Wisconsin like the fields he farms in Elroy," says Brandon Scholz of the Wisconsin Grocers Association and a former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. "He has committed most of his life and public service to serving Wisconsin."
During the Republican National Convention in September, Thompson held a fundraiser on the StarShip yacht, moored at a dock near the Tampa convention center.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was on board, along with Walker and a bevy of other Republican stars with ties to Wisconsin.
The setting, featuring an elephant topiary, clinking wine glasses and good cheer all around, was perfect for the task at hand: raising lots of money.
The bruising Senate primary behind him, an ebullient Thompson bounded to the mike, ready to let bygones be bygones and focus on what he cares about most: hometown pride.
"When you say Wisconsin, you pretty much said it all," Thompson declared. "It's hard to be humble when you're from Wisconsin," he added.
Thompson introduced Walker, who said the choice in the Senate race is "between a radical Madison liberal or a true reformer."
A guy standing near me murmured, "We're gonna kick her ass, just like Karl Rove said."
'Demagoguery and lies'
But some supporters worried that Republicans were overconfident about Thompson's strength. National groups, focused on other Senate races, were slow to pour resources into Wisconsin. They figured Thompson would win easily.
Meanwhile, Baldwin's ads were making Thompson into a poster child for corrupt, insider politics.
"She's hitting Tommy Thompson on what he thinks is his strongest point," says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. "One thing people always thought about Thompson, love him or hate him, is he sort of epitomized Wisconsin."
Baldwin's ads - "Tommy Thompson, he's not for you anymore" - have "cast some doubt about whether he is still connected to Wisconsin the way he was in the '90s," Heck adds.
When he left Wisconsin to work as George W. Bush's Health and Human Services secretary, Baldwin points out, Thompson helped craft Medicare Part D, "a sweetheart deal for the drug companies." Part of his job was "overseeing writing into federal law a prohibition against bargaining for better prices," she notes in an interview. After he left the Bush administration, Baldwin adds, Thompson joined a firm that lobbies for many of the same health care interests he championed in Washington.
"The fact that Tommy Thompson is part of the crowd that tries to create a separate set of rules for his powerful friends is significant," Baldwin says. "That resonates particularly this year."
The Thompson campaign responds: "Not only did Medicare Part D save taxpayers $435 billion, but...90% of seniors support the program."
Referring to the "barrage of negative attacks from Tammy Baldwin," Thompson says, "When you don't have a record to run on, you resort to demagoguery and lies."
Three houses or four?
But the attacks worked.
If, as conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times says, Mitt Romney has a Thurston Howell problem, Thompson now has one himself.
Having made millions after his stint in Washington, D.C., Thompson now refuses to release his tax returns. In October he made news by forgetting how many houses he owns. First he said three, and insisted that was correct. Then his campaign had to issue a statement: Actually, Thompson owns four houses. He had completely forgotten about a million-dollar lake condo where he sometimes vacations.
In their second debate, when Thompson attacked Baldwin for being soft on Iran, she pointed out that he owned stock in a mining company that helps Iran extract uranium in Africa. Tommy's rejoinder, "I sold it today," made the audience laugh.
Affable as ever on the yacht, Thompson chatted with everyone and gave out hugs, including to this reporter, telling me, "Come and see me!"
But his campaign later did not answer several requests to interview the candidate, finally responding to questions only by email. The National Review quoted Thompson complaining that he was being kept "in a silo" and away from the press, and a YouTube video shows his staff hustling him into a car as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Daniel Bice doggedly tries to ask him some questions.
In the video Thompson appears mildly bewildered at the hounding and ready to engage if only his handlers would get out of the way. But they don't.
One reason may be fear of gaffes. In one of the more damaging of the campaign, Thompson went a tad too far in touting his much heralded efforts in the 1990s to reform welfare. "Who better than me to end Medicare and Medicaid?" he asked. That line went viral on YouTube and was used in liberal Majority PAC ads.
Left of Obama
While Baldwin has been painting Thompson as a rich, out-of-touch Republican, the national Democratic Party has seized on Baldwin as a symbol of progressive values in this presidential election year. She snagged a prime speaking slot at the Democratic convention and has been campaigning with Obama in Wisconsin.
Baldwin's brand of progressive politics could help energize the Democrats' national campaign this year. In fact, says Heck, "The question in Wisconsin is whether Obama helps her or she helps Obama."
Baldwin spoke at two Wisconsin rallies for Obama in September. Talking to the overflow crowd on the Summerfest concert grounds in Milwaukee, she got a huge cheer from the crowd as she walked up to the podium in her red vest.
"I never would have thought I'd be able to say that I opened for the president of the United States at Summerfest," she declared.
Down in the crowd, demand outstripped the supply of "Forward!" signs.
"Forward!" - the state motto of Wisconsin - is now President Obama's campaign slogan.
In this, and in the progressive tone of his remarks, Obama made an energetic appeal to his base in this closely divided state. And Baldwin played an important part, helping to energize Wisconsin progressives for Obama.
"President Obama is fighting for all Americans, while Mitt Romney writes off half the nation," Baldwin told the crowd, referencing Romney's statement that 47% of Americans want to be dependent on government.
Baldwin spent a lot of her speech bashing unfair trade with China, a theme with particular resonance in blue-collar Milwaukee.
"The only time our opponents have been on a factory floor is when they're making another misleading ad," Baldwin said. "Mitt Romney never stood up to China. Instead, he's profited from sending our jobs there."
Baldwin's consistent voting record supporting unions and opposing trade deals like Most Favored Nation status for China and CAFTA puts her to the left of Obama. But the president picked up on her pro-fair-trade theme in his own speech.
Referring to the auto industry rescue - a major theme of the Democratic National Convention - Obama said, "What we did for autos we want to do for manufacturing across the board."
Hail fellow well met
Health care has emerged as the most prominent issue in the Senate race. And it's a tricky one for Thompson.
Thompson did - as his opponents and the Club For Growth charged during the primary - initially praise Obama's health care reform.
He now says he would vote to repeal Obamacare. But he continues to stand by BadgerCare and SeniorCare - expansions of publicly funded health care that were among his proudest achievements as governor.
And while he backs vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, he says he has his own proposal: "Thompson's plan will ensure that Medicare will remain unchanged for those in or near retirement," his campaign explains in an email. "Then, it will give future seniors the power of choice. They will be able to choose between enrolling in traditional, fee-for-service Medicare or from a menu of private options, the same as members of Congress. Through private competition, we will see the cost of care fall and quality will rise."
As for Baldwin's view of Medicare, Thompson says: "Tammy Baldwin's only plan for Medicare is to gut $716 billion from it to form a new entitlement, put a board of 15 unelected bureaucrats in charge of rationing care, and then sit back and watch as it goes insolvent."
To win the Republican primary, Thompson underwent a drastic makeover. He survived. But his toeing of the tea party line hurt him, says old Thompson friend Bill Kraus, co-chair of Common Cause Wisconsin, who once worked for Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus.
"Maybe he's paying a price," says Kraus. "They're not going to let him go back to being Tommy.... I told him every time I saw him, 'Tommy, we [moderate Republicans] are still here.'"
Thompson may be one of the last of his kind as a Republican with moderate, bipartisan tendencies. And his old-style, hail-fellow-well-met politics may help him in the final stretch.
"I want you to drink a beer tonight," Thompson declared the night he won the Republican primary. That's the Thompson most people in Wisconsin can relate to.
A perfect target?
The Thompson campaign took the low road in early September when it emailed a video of Baldwin dancing, rather stiffly, on stage at a gay pride event. It was a departure for Thompson, who avoided such attacks in the past, and he ended up issuing an apology and saying he hadn't known about it. Another recent gaffe involved his son, who told supporters at a fundraiser they could help send Obama "back to Kenya." Again, Thompson apologized.
If he or his surrogates continue to go harshly negative against Baldwin in the next few weeks, Thompson might turn people off.
"It could be Tommy is looking old and mean," Kraus says. "He didn't look either of those things in the '90s. You can't get younger, but you could get less contentious and more Tommy."
During his debates with Baldwin, Thompson failed to take Kraus' advice. "I'm not in Congress. You are!" he snarled at his opponent. "All she can do is try to get people in Wisconsin not to like me."
Still, some Republicans think Baldwin is the perfect target - a Dane County lesbian liberal.
But, Heck cautions, "She has always been underestimated, ever since she ran her first race."
Baldwin is a disciplined campaigner and a very effective fundraiser. Her campaign has raised $11.7 million, almost double the $6.1 million the Thompson campaign reported.
Her top contributor, in her last filing, was EMILY's List at $216,000. Other big contributors were labor unions, the League of Conservation Voters, JStreetPAC and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. Thompson's top contributor was the Fortune 500 health care company Centene Corp ($42,500), heading a long list of corporations including Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly & Co., and Aurora Health Care.
But even more significant are the independent expenditure groups that, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, are buying more air time than the candidates for the first time in a Wisconsin Senate race. Crossroads GPS and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee top the list.
With $22.5 million in spending by outside groups, the Wisconsin Senate race is now the second most expensive in the country after Virginia, according to data collected by the Sunlight Foundation.
Even as recently as the 2010 Senate race between Russ Feingold and Ron Johnson, the candidates did almost all the spending - a total of $3 million to $4 million, says Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. What jumps out about this race, besides the obscene increase in spending, says McCabe, "is the extent to which the candidates are doing less of the talking and the interest groups are doing more of the talking."
All that money is having an impact. The latest Marquette poll on Oct. 17 showed Baldwin and Thompson in a dead heat. The Wisconsin Senate race is one of the hottest in the nation.