By Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Democrats have gone south in search of redemption.
For nearly two years, the state’s Republicans have had the national spotlight, sweeping the 2010 elections, keeping Gov. Scott Walker in office in the historic June recall election and taking over last week’s Republican National Convention with a cast of Cheesehead politicos.
Now the state’s Democrats are in Charlotte, N.C., for their own party’s national convention in the hope of recapturing some of their 2008 electoral success and reminding viewers that Wisconsin has given the nation its share of liberal leaders, too.
Two big elections in Wisconsin could play an important national role this fall — President Barack Obama’s re-election bid and a U.S. Senate election that could help decide party control of that powerful body.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, Wis., will try to play a role in both those contests with a prime-time speech Thursday on the same convention-closing evening and in the same stadium where Obama will speak.
Baldwin will introduce herself to a wider audience and seek traction in her Senate race against GOP opponent and former Gov. Tommy Thompson, but she will also talk about different ideals than those championed by Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential pick and Baldwin’s longtime colleague in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“We’ve seen Paul Ryan and Scott Walker on the national stage. I’m going to talk about the Wisconsin I know,” Baldwin said in an interview, emphasizing fairness and hard work over influence and wealth.
” . . . We’ve increasingly seen wealthy, powerful interests gain power in Washington and, frankly, in Madison and write their own set of rules. Hard-working families deserve a shot.”
The GOP convention highlighted Wisconsin and its rising conservative stars like Ryan, Walker and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state should help it hang on to some of that attention during the Democratic convention — so far only Wisconsin and Virginia are seen as being in the handful of most important states in the country for deciding both the presidential race and control of the U.S. Senate.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington said in a statement that her group was “100 percent” behind Baldwin and saw her race as key.
“Wisconsin is clearly one of the most important races in the country. This could be the race that determines whether (GOP U.S. Sen.) Mitch McConnell becomes majority leader,” Murray said in a statement. “It’s clear that a vote for Tommy Thompson is a vote for a Republican Senate that would end Medicare, give more tax breaks to the wealthy, and roll back women’s health care access in this country.”
Wins in Wisconsin in the presidential race and the Senate race would rebut Republicans’ claims that this swing state is permanently shifting in favor of their message of lower deficits and more jobs through lower taxes and government spending.
Losses would raise questions about Democrats’ own message of job growth through investments in education and infrastructure and lower deficits through both spending cuts and some tax increases, particularly for those with higher incomes.
Recent polls done after the Ryan pick but before the Republican convention have shown Obama with a smaller but still present lead in the state and Baldwin trailing Thompson, with political forecasters currently giving an edge to Obama and a smaller one to Thompson.
A Thompson spokesman said that voters saw Baldwin as a Madison liberal who had supported the bank bailout, health care law and debt increases that had worsened their economic troubles.
“The economic challenges our country are facing aren’t all that different than those Tommy successfully tackled as governor by cutting taxes and government spending, and voters believe he can do it again and are ready to put him back to work as our next U.S. senator,” Brian Nemoir said.
Baldwin isn’t well known generally outside Wisconsin and is also still introducing herself to some areas within the state such as the North Woods.
She can talk on Thursday about overcoming adversity in her life. Baldwin is the daughter of a teen mother and was raised by her grandparents.
When Baldwin was 9, she spent three months in the hospital for a serious illness and wasn’t covered by her grandparents’ insurance. They paid for her care themselves and then struggled to find her insurance because of her pre-existing condition.
But Baldwin went on to earn a law degree and serve first on the Dane County Board, then in the state Assembly and finally in the U.S. House, caring for her aging grandparents along the way.
Her life story puts Baldwin at an intersection of several themes that will figure in the Democratic convention.
One of them is Ryan — Baldwin was elected to the House in the same year as Ryan, 1998, and shares his tactic of matching a strong ideology with a straightforward, friendly manner.
“I think it’s a question of values and issues and not personalities. I came in the same year Paul Ryan did. We are friends. We have managed to disagree politically without being disagreeable,” Baldwin said.
She also has worked extensively in Congress on issues related to health care and seniors, giving her a platform from which to critique Ryan’s proposal to financially strengthen the Medicare program by shifting toward a vouchers system for future retirees.
“I learned at an early age the importance of programs like Medicare and Social Security . . . to folks who have spent a long career paying into the system and earning coverage. I regard them more as promises than programs,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin is also attempting to become the first openly gay U.S. senator in the country’s history and so far that side of her life and her record on gay and lesbian issues hasn’t been a focus for either her or her opponent. She signaled she would lightly touch on it by talking about the “historic march toward equality.”
Baldwin’s stances on core voting issues will likely get the most attention, and those can cut both ways.
She favored an even more aggressive approach by the federal government to reforming the health care system than the one approved by Obama, which in Wisconsin has fewer voters who like it than dislike it. Based on analyses of votes by academics and other observers, Baldwin is generally ranked as among the most liberal members of the House.
Thompson, her opponent, has sought to capitalize on Baldwin’s record. In an interview last week at the Republican National Convention, he moved quickly to Baldwin’s health care positions.
“She wants the government to control your decisions — your doctor, your hospital, your medical decisions,” Thompson said. “And I want you, the individual. Huge difference.”
He said Baldwin stands for higher taxes and more bureaucracy while he stands for lower taxes and fewer government rules.
“There has never been two candidates more philosophically different running for a statewide office than Tammy Baldwin and myself,” Thompson said.
One apparent effect of the Republican convention’s blinding spotlight on its young stars — Ryan, Walker and Priebus — is that the veteran hand Thompson received much less attention. But Baldwin is getting a prominent spot at her party’s convention. In that regard, she’s like Elizabeth Warren, an established Democratic star who is running in a marquis race against GOP Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
State Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat heavily favored to win Baldwin’s congressional seat, said that he believes Baldwin could also inspire enthusiasm among Democratic stalwarts and donors around the country in the way that Warren has.
“There’s no reason she wouldn’t topping that list” of top Democrats nationally, Pocan said.