The Democrats' signature health care law helped cost three-term Wisconsin incumbent Russ Feingold his seat in 2010. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) made clear tonight that she thinks her support of the law will help her secure victory over former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R).
The debate between the two candidates revealed what campaign spots in recent days had already been hinting at: There is likely no statewide race in the country where health care is playing a more crucial role in candidates distinguishing themselves for voters.
"We've got to do away with the Affordable Care Act. And then we can put in things like making sure that the individuals are going to be able to be covered, pre-existing illnesses can be taken care of, individuals are going to be able to have control over their health care and be able to buy a contract," Thompson said in response to a question on whether he supported scrapping the law, which includes some provisions that have not yet taken effect.
"My opponent wants the government to control it. I want you, the individual, and the state government to be able to determine who is going to be the arbitrators and the referees of health care. Huge difference," Thompson continued. "Do you want the federal government to make a determination who your doctor and hospital is or do you want the state and the individual? I'm with the state and the individual and my opponent wants the federal government - huge, diametrically opposed and that's what it's all about."
The states-versus-federal tack is of note for two reasons. First, Thompson spent much of the debate focusing on his time as governor in an attempt to demonstrate that he is more in touch with Wisconsin than Baldwin. Second, one of the central features of the Affordable Care Act is state-run exchanges for health insurance, though coverage must meet federal guidelines.
Baldwin was quick to point to the states' role in managing the exchanges in her response.
One of the hardest attack lines Thompson has pursued is Baldwin's support of a single-payer system, such as the ones in Canada or the United Kingdom.
Thompson's campaign debuted a new ad spot earlier in the day featuring video footage of Baldwin declaring, "I actually was for a government takeover of medicine."
Defining the Other
In other races across the country, the economy and the national debt have taken center stage, which is not to say that either of those issues are not key factors in the Badger State. But Thompson's involvement in helping to create the Medicare Part D program during his time as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Baldwin's continued staunch support of the 2010 law has kept health care at the center of the campaign.
Baldwin has tried to paint Thompson as a politician beholden to special interests, citing Medicare Part D and his time as a lobbyist as examples of why he is not as strong on issues affecting the middle class. Baldwin, like many other Democrats, focused on the tax code and played up her support of the so-called Buffett Rule, which would raise taxes on Americans making more than $1 million.
"I'll be the voice for the people, not the powerful," Baldwin said.
Thompson said raising taxes in a slow economy would harm the struggling recovery.
The hour-long debate seemed to be a contest between two veteran politicians trying to define the other as more out-of-touch, with Baldwin claiming Thompson champions the rich at the expense of middle America and Thompson saying Baldwin "is so far out there, she is not in the mainstream," a key message of his campaign.
But on a high school football Friday night, it's unclear how many Wisconsinites were tuned in to get that message, or if either rang truer.