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David Clarenbach: Baldwin can win Tammy vs. Tommy matchup
This is the most intriguing U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin since I ran for Congress 20 years ago. That was the same year, many will recall, that a little-known state senator — Russ Feingold — with no money but a spunky spirit, came literally out of nowhere to upset the experts by prevailing in the heated Democratic primary against two much better organized and better funded candidates. He went on to beat the heavily favored two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Kasten.
While different players and different dynamics exist in the “Tammy versus Tommy” race, I see some distinct parallels. The general consensus is that, among the Republican primary contenders, Tammy Baldwin would have likely fared better — perhaps even been favored to win — had one of the others won the GOP nomination. Now, at least according to the more traditional analysis, Baldwin is facing a tough, uphill battle: Tommy Thompson is well known, well liked and better financed.
Yet I am not convinced this analysis is correct.
As I see it, as a four-term governor with few negatives Thompson should have cleaned up in the Republican primary; notwithstanding the presence of the self-funded campaign of the millionaire political novice Eric Hovde and the tea party nipping at Thompson’s heals, he was clearly the candidate with overwhelming name recognition and organizational advantage. Yet he barely squeaked by to win the nomination.
Why? In part it’s because memories are short. The 14 years since his name was last on the ballot is an eon in today’s politics. And, if the last four years have taught us anything, it is that voters are seeking substantial change in the status quo and in politics-as-usual. In 2008, it was a dramatically new and different president. In 2010, it was a new and dramatically different Congress.
Is this Senate race still an uphill battle for Baldwin? Yes, if for no other reason than she’s being outspent by a ridiculously large margin when the independent expenditures are added up. But I’ve learned that a fresh face and new perspective — as Baldwin is in the eyes of the rest of the state — can overcome the oddsmakers, just as Feingold did in 1992.
Obama carried Wisconsin by well over 10 points in ’08, yet just a few short years later Walker prevailed by more than five points. Twice. That sort of wild swing is unprecedented and indicative of an extraordinarily volatile and unpredictable political environment. This fall, the direction in which Wisconsin votes in the presidential race could have a significant coattail influence on Baldwin’s chances if Obama comes on strong.
But in the end, as it often does in politics, it boils down to one simple equation: Which candidate will control the terms of the debate? Will voters see Baldwin as just another tax-and-spend liberal, striving to dig the federal deficit as deep as it can go? Or will voters conclude that Thompson has forgotten his roots and “gone Washington” – is Tommy just not one of “us” anymore?
The real battle is just beginning to brew, and I’m not counting Baldwin out. Not by a long shot.
In 1972, David Clarenbach won election to the Dane County Board of Supervisors and became the first 18-year-old officeholder in the state. He went on to serve on the Madison City Council, and from 1975-1993 represented Madison’s east side in the state Legislature, the last 10 years of which as speaker pro tem of the state Assembly. He lost his campaign for Congress in 1992.