In a Senate race that has been defined by negative ads, where both candidates are more disliked by voters than they are liked, Wisconsin might be on the verge of discovering whether there is such a thing as too negative.
And in 2012, a cycle in which nastiness and pettiness has reigned supreme nationwide, that's saying something.
The mudslinging in the Badger State reached a new level this week with the roll-out of dueling 9/11 ads, featuring former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) accusing Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) of being unpatriotic and Baldwin, in turn, accusing Thompson of profiting off of 9/11 victims. And while it remains to be seen whether Wisconsin voters will find the ads distasteful, it is clear they find their options on the ballot so. In the most recent Marquette University Law School poll, 50 percent of voters held an unfavorable view of Thompson and 47 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Baldwin.
Thompson has told voters that Baldwin is "too extreme" for Wisconsin and Baldwin has said that "Tommy isn't for us anymore." The 9/11 ads, replete with images of charred buildings, American flags and ominous voice overs, are just an extension of what's already out there, albeit one that some sources speculate could backfire on Thompson, who started the fight.
"What I can say is that both sides have already run overwhelmingly negative campaigns, and we have strong evidence in our data as of the mid-October poll that both candidates are more unfavorable than favorable and the two central themes ... have stuck to both of them to an equal degree," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School poll. "In that sense, the negative campaign up until now is demonstrably effective and sticking to its targets, so this new ad is pushing and has the same tagline. ... So I don't know what that means for whether it has an extra impact or whether it just cements what's already out there."
Roll Call reported earlier this month on the saturation of negative ads in the race and how the fight to define the other candidate has shaped the contest, even when the other guy was a popular, well-known, multi-term governor.
But Thompson's initial 9/11 ad, which debuted statewide on Tuesday, seems to be a step-up in rancor. The ad, titled "Dangerous Path," accuses Baldwin of disrespecting 9/11 victims by voting against a commemorative resolution in 2006. Baldwin, at the time and now, said she voted against that measure — a non-binding, symbolic piece of legislation — in protest of language inserted into it regarding the government's response to the attack, including the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act.
Using 9/11 as campaign fodder is a roll of the dice, and it's one that sources outside the Thompson campaign indicated must have been deemed necessary to try to get a boost in the polls in the campaign's closing days.
"I just watched them in order. Production quality of [Thompson]'s ad is very good, the people talking are sincere, believable, seems like a very powerful hit. Then, I watched the response, seems to hit back very strongly and well. Soft spoken, sad, not over the top," one top Republican media strategist said in an email to Roll Call. "While I thought the original was powerful, I think the response wins hands down, by not only calling [Thompson]'s ad a cheap shot, but adding the seemingly devastating info about [Thompson] profiting so much from that very issue."
The media strategist continued: "Wow. One would have to say that [Thompson's] team must have felt they needed to throw a long ball, because they had to consider the possibility of that response."
Baldwin's campaign has called the Thompson ad over the top. Ads branded in such a way by opponents have a mixed record. Elizabeth Dole's "godless" ads failed to take down now-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), but a Republican National Committee ad in 2006 on behalf of now-Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) featuring a buxom blonde woman telling Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr. to "call me," succeeded.
The two candidates likely will address the issue in their debate Friday night. In the end, however, the exchange of ads this week, and the hullabaloo surrounding them, might not make a dent in a race that has become increasingly dependent on how each party's presidential nominee performs.
"We've run that, the two votes are very, very highly correlated, much more so than they were earlier in the year," Franklin said of the relationship between the Senate race and President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney's performances in Wisconsin.
Franklin said that either the coattails of the presidential nominees have grown stronger or the hyper-partisan nature of the debate has polarized Wisconsin — or revealed the state's polarization — to a degree that only a few independents are left.
"Maybe that's the opening for an ad like this to have some sort of impact," Franklin said.