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Wisconsin Senate Race Will Be Test of Political Mood

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin will face the winner of the GOP primary in the race for Wisconsin’s Senate seat.

Wisconsin has drawn plenty of attention recently, first because of the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker (R) and then because it is one of a handful of swing states in the 2012 presidential election.

But it is the Senate race for retiring Democrat Herb Kohl’s seat that could end up being the state’s most significant contest, if it determines control of the Senate.

The Democratic standard-bearer will be Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a graduate of Smith College and the University of Wisconsin Law School. She served on the Dane County Board of Supervisors before winning election to the state Assembly in 1992 and to Congress six years later.

Republicans tend to see Baldwin, the first openly gay woman to be elected to Congress, as a flawed candidate, noting her voting record and her identification with liberal Madison.

But even if Baldwin is “too liberal” for her state, that’s hardly reason for Republican euphoria. The Senate is full of Members who were “too liberal” and “too conservative” for their states, and Baldwin is a serious, well-funded and articulate candidate from a state that has in the past elected liberal Democrats such as Bill Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson, Russ Feingold and Kohl to the Senate.

That said, Baldwin could have difficulty appealing to moderate voters if Republicans can make the race a referendum on her voting record. The Madison Democrat ranked as the 21st most liberal House Member, according to National Journal’s 2011 ratings.

She voted against authorizing the invasion of Iraq, for the stimulus and cap-and-trade bills and for the Democratic health care bill — even though she preferred a bill that included a “public option.” And  she has indicated her support for a single-payer (government) health care plan. She favors the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and opposed the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

But while Baldwin does not run from the progressive label, she isn’t going to allow Republicans to push her too far left. Her first TV spot, “Paper,” focuses on jobs and accuses China of “cheating” and costing the state jobs. But the spot also portrays the Congresswoman as someone who has reached across the aisle. “I brought Democrats and Republicans together to put sanctions on China now,” she says in the 30-second commercial.

The Baldwin team includes Diane Feldman for polling and Saul Shorr and Mandy Grunwald for media.

On the GOP side, the early frontrunner for the Aug. 14 primary was former Gov. Tommy Thompson, 70.

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