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.
National Democrats insist they aren’t getting complacent. They responded by spending seven figures defending Baldwin when she faced attacks early in the race, and Republican groups have laid off attacking her given the focus on their primary. But Democrats in the state worry that if and when the attacks come, Democrats might not respond in kind if they’re focused elsewhere.
“It concerns me when I see people not making the choices to invest,” said Martha Laning, the Democratic Party chair. “We absolutely need every bit of help we can get.”
That late spending will likely come only after Republicans settle their Aug. 14 primary. The race features Vukmir, the state senator with the endorsement of most of the state’s Republican apparatus, and Nicholson, a former Democrat and Marine who’s running as an outsider.
Vukmir is a close ally of Gov. Scott Walker, who is up for reelection and looking to win his fourth race in eight years. Walker remains neutral in the Senate primary, but his wife endorsed Vukmir, and his son is Vukmir’s political director. There is little contrast between the two Republicans on their policy positions — instead, they’re fighting a primary mostly on who would be the better contrast to Baldwin in the general election.
Vukmir is “making it clear she’s the insider. I’m making it clear I’m the outsider, and I know that’s why I’m going to win,” Nicholson said aboard his new campaign RV after shaking hands at a county fair.
Vukmir says Nicholson’s attacks against her show her opponent “doesn’t really understand Wisconsin.”
“He’s going to have to prove to the people of Wisconsin what his track record is. I don’t have to,” Vukmir said in an interview at a local craft beer cafe, her comments punctuated by cheers from the Friday afternoon crowd watching a World Cup match on TV.
While they duke it out, Baldwin is working to win over swing voters, while at the same time keeping party activists motivated.
At the diner, Baldwin told one voter that she sees a “stark contrast” between the apathy of the Democratic electorate in 2016, when she was stumping for Hillary Clinton and Feingold, and the excitement she’s seeing now.
Baldwin was asked by another person whether Democrats could stop Republicans from changing the balance of the Supreme Court. “To be totally honest, I don’t know,” said the soft-spoken senator. In the interview, she said she’d wait and see who Trump nominated before evaluating her vote, and said she planned to sit down with the nominee, as she did with Neil Gorsuch and Merrick Garland.
But Baldwin perked up when a third voter said she’d prefer to see more working across the aisle in Washington. “I’m from a purple state, and I’m running for reelection in a purple state. I would love it if you knew more about the successes I have across the aisle,” Baldwin said enthusiastically, mentioning her work with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Joni Ernst of Iowa.
Town Chef, the diner, sits on a busy road in the heart of Portage, a town of 10,000 in central Wisconsin, in a swing county that has voted for Republicans such as Trump and Walker — and Democrats such as Barack Obama and Feingold. Baldwin’s path to victory rests on winning over places like this, while keeping Democrat-rich areas like Madison and Milwaukee motivated to turn out.
Dave Cieslewicz, a former mayor of Madison, said Baldwin has been adept at balancing rural voters with her base. Her reserved Midwestern persona, he said, is what helps her do it.
She’s “more or less an unapologetic liberal,” he said, but “she has a personality as if she’s from Portage.”