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This November, Republicans hoping to gain control of the U.S. Senate are banking on Wisconsin. They want to flip the seat held by Democrat Herb Kohl, who's retiring. Vying for that seat, Republican Tommy Thompson. He was elected governor of Wisconsin four times and left to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.
His rival is seven-term Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Madison, among the most liberal members of Congress. If she wins, she would be the first openly gay U.S. senator. And a number of polls out this week show a Baldwin surge. Our co-host Melissa Block is in Wisconsin and caught up with both candidates.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, Tammy.
REPRESENTATIVE TAMMY BALDWIN: Oh, great to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good to see you too.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Tammy Baldwin works her way through a crowded lunch gathering of Rotarians in Milwaukee.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So you must be pleased to hear the most recent poll results I saw on the news last night?
BALDWIN: Yes. It was exciting to see some real momentum, and I'm thrilled.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.
BLOCK: A week ago, the Rotary Club heard from Tommy Thompson. Now it's Baldwin's turn. Her message has threads of economic populism: The top earners should pay more in taxes, special interests have too much power.
BALDWIN: The Wisconsin I know really does use fairness as its guidepost.
BLOCK: Soft-spoken in person, the 50-year-old Tammy Baldwin is portrayed as a strident, snarling, liberal extremist in opposing ads. They highlight her past statements supporting a single-payer health care system. An anti-Baldwin Republican Web video shows her raising a fist and shouting solidarity with union members during the huge protest that roiled the state capital last year. I asked Baldwin to respond to this charge from her rival, Tommy Thompson, that she is out of the mainstream of Wisconsin voters.
BALDWIN: I believe I'm in the finest tradition of Wisconsin progressives, and so I consider myself a fighter for the hard-working families in this state.
BLOCK: Wisconsin has been consistently blue in presidential elections. It hasn't voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan. In 2008, Barack Obama swept Wisconsin by a whopping 14 points. But two years ago, a Republican wave washed over this state. Republicans gained the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat, two Democratic House seats and won control of both houses of the state legislature. And this spring, Governor Scott Walker easily survived a recall vote.
Despite all that, Tammy Baldwin thinks Wisconsin will swing back to the Democrats in November. And as for her opponent, Tommy Thompson, who was known as a reformer, someone able to bridge party divides as governor, she says he swerved to the right.
BALDWIN: He has become somebody who disavows compromise. He signed a pledge to D.C. lobbyist Grover Norquist and said on certain tax issues he will not compromise. He told a Tea Party group: I'm the guy who did away with welfare, and I'll do the same with Medicare and Medicaid. You know, I think people are recognizing that I'm the candidate who is fighting for them, not for the powerful special interests in Washington.
BLOCK: And Baldwin is hitting that theme hard in this campaign ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tommy Thompson left Wisconsin for Washington. Boy, did he. Working for George Bush, Tommy cut a sweetheart deal with drug companies, making it illegal for Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices. It cost taxpayers $156 billion. Then Tommy made millions working for a lobbying firm that represents drug companies.
TOMMY THOMPSON: There's an old adage that says when you don't have a case, you attack the person individually and personally. She has nothing to run on except demagoguery.
BLOCK: I caught up with Tommy Thompson in Milwaukee.
THOMPSON: There's nobody more Wisconsin than Tommy Thompson. I still farm in Wisconsin. I still run and manage the family farm that's been in our family since 1861. Ninety percent of the people in the state of Wisconsin know me as Tommy. I'm true blue. When they cut me, it comes out cardinal red and a little bit of cheese. And that's Tommy Thompson.
BLOCK: Thompson served an unprecedented 14 years as Wisconsin's governor, winning his last three elections in a landslide. He drew bipartisan support and is best known for reforming the welfare system. Last month, at age 70, he squeaked through a bitter Republican primary, narrowly winning a four-way race. Thompson tried to reassure leery Tea Party supporters that he is in his words way over on the right and not going to compromise. He promised: I'll repeal Obamacare. But conservatives remained skeptical. Now his task is to persuade independent voters that he's on their side.
THOMPSON: Congresswoman Baldwin and President Barack Obama have been losing jobs all over America. It is absolutely a difference in philosophy, difference in direction, as different as day and night. And that is what the independents of the state of Wisconsin have got a chance to vote on. They want more government regulation, they should vote for Congresswoman Baldwin. If they want less government regulation, they should vote for me. If they want more taxation, they should vote for Congresswoman Baldwin because she will deliver. Or if they want less taxation, they should vote for Governor Tommy Thompson. Simple, straightforward, and I am confident the vast majority will vote for me.
BLOCK: I meet Thompson at a factory that makes heavy machinery, Ludman Industries. The former governor tours the plant, slaps the backs of machinists. One worker has an impeach Obama bumper sticker plastered on his workstation on the factory floor. He tells Thompson, you got to take out that Tammy Baldwin.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Send her out of town packing.
BLOCK: Tommy Thompson is out with a new ad today showing scenes of him in a factory that looks much like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
THOMPSON: Soon you will have an important choice to make between two very different visions for America: a choice between expanding government or reforming it. My opponent supports the government takeover of health care and wants to expand government with higher taxes and more spending.
BLOCK: A huge amount of outside ad money is flooding into Wisconsin. Meanwhile, this week's polls show the Baldwin campaign gaining steam. One shows the race now a dead heat. Another from Marquette Law School shows Baldwin leading Thompson by nine points among likely voters. That's a complete reversal from one month ago when Thompson led Baldwin by that same margin. The poll's director, Charles Franklin, calls that 18-point shift a wow, though he expects the race to tighten. Wisconsin, he says, is in the midst of an identity crisis.
CHARLES FRANKLIN: So which state are we? Are we the 14-point Obama state of 2008, in which case I think on the Senate side Baldwin is very competitive? Or are we the strong Walker state of 2010 and in the recall this year, in which case it's a much stronger position for Republicans?
BLOCK: Tomorrow on the program, we'll hear from voters in a swing county in this battleground state about the presidential race and a bitterly divided electorate.
SIEGEL: That's our co-host Melissa Block, reporting this week from Wisconsin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.