Rep. Tammy Baldwin has spent millions of dollars over the past month on ads attacking her Republican opponent, former Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Still, between Labor Day and this week, Baldwin’s campaign spent 2.5 times as much as Thompson’s did on media, resulting in a nearly 3-to-1 advantage in ads on the airwaves and a boost for the Madison Democrat in the polls. Since then, the race has narrowed significantly, and Democratic and Republican sources in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., say the performance of President Barack Obama and Romney at the top of the ticket is still the Senate race’s most important factor.
But like most tossup Senate contests across the country, Wisconsin’s race has been defined by negative ads, which could make the election a choice of which candidate voters dislike less.
A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed Baldwin trailing Thompson by 1 point, after leading him by 9 points four weeks ago. Obama also saw his lead shrink to 1 point, after being up 11 points two weeks ago.
Thompson, who emerged from a bruising, four-way August primary, had been cash-strapped and unable to go on the air in the days after he won.
His most recent unfavorable ratings in the Marquette poll have remained constant at 49 percent or 50 percent — a media battle scar that runs deep. Baldwin’s unfavorables, however, rose 7 points to 47 percent over two weeks, after Thompson and the NRSC started running ads against her.
A source tracking Romney’s operation in Wisconsin noted that the campaign is now “flooding the zone” in the Badger State, which could make it more difficult for the Senate ads to break through.
Given the high cost of getting into the media game, much of the onus will fall on outside groups, especially in the case of Thompson.
The Thompson campaign had not, as of Tuesday, made ad buys for the campaign’s last two weeks, according to a document obtained by Roll Call from a GOP source. Baldwin’s campaign was tentatively slated to spend $1.1 million on radio and TV ads over that same period.
Moreover, Thompson’s campaign trails Baldwin’s by $1.4 million in cash on hand.
In the days ahead, Republican outside groups are expected to step up their game and hope to make Baldwin even less popular with voters. The NRSC is scheduled to spend $2.9 million in the campaign’s last three weeks, and American Crossroads is slated to chip in almost $3 million, in addition to about $5 million Crossroads GPS has already spent on the race. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is slated to spend about $2.6 million in the final three weeks on Baldwin’s behalf.
“The reality is, you just hit a saturation point in any of these races where the messages have to become more creative and the topics have to change to make them more effective,” said a Republican operative affiliated with a group supporting Thompson. “She’s not as well-known as him, so there’s still room to grow that message in a way that also feeds into the narrative of the recall — no one wants to elect someone who’s too extreme, who is going to embarrass them.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.