(First published in the October 18, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin faced Republican challenger Leah Vukmir in a Wausau debate that further defined their differences.
About 15 minutes prior to the start of Saturday night’s debate at the WSAW Channel 7 studio, incumbent U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin patiently awaited the start of the broadcast in the backlit set worthy of a major cable network. She looked calm, smiled at crew members, reporters and others as she waited for her opponent.
Leah Vukmir, the state senator and former nurse vying for Baldwin’s seat, rushed in mere minutes before the broadcast debate was to begin, surrounded by aides making last minute adjustments. A planned photo op before the debate was quickly rushed and part of it canceled before time ran out as the candidates were hustled to the stage.
As Vukmir struggled to catch up and get into the studio on time, so is she struggling to catch Baldwin in the polls. The latest Marquette University Law School poll has Baldwin leading by 10 points, 53-43%. The most generous post-primary poll has Vukmir trailing by eight points. Vukmir’s ads targeting Baldwin over the Tomah VA hospital opioid prescription issue haven’t done much to narrow that gap, and may have backfired after a family featured in one of Vukmir’s ads came out in support of Baldwin.
Republicans are still high on Vukmir, who has long been a strong conservative voice in the Wisconsin legislature. She was elected to the Assembly in 2002, and then state Senate in 2010.
Outside groups also are high on Vukmir, based on their funding against Baldwin, which has hit eight digits. Political Action Group Americans for Prosperity, for example, has spent roughly $2.5 million on the Vukmir/Baldwin race.
Baldwin’s highest outside support came from Senate Majority PAC, which spent $1.1 million supporting Baldwin,
That said, Baldwin has severely out-raised and outspent Vukmir, as incumbents tend to do. Since the last report in July, Baldwin raised $22.6 million to Vukmir’s $2 million, according to the Federal Elections Commission; and Baldwin spent $16 million of that, with Vukmir spending $1.7 million. Most of both the candidate’s funding came from large individual donors.
But debates put all that aside, and the format moderators chose for last Saturday evening ensured both candidates did something all politicians on both sides of the aisle can sometimes struggle with: Directly answering the question. A common politician’s tactic is to use a question merely as a jumping point to give a prepared talking point at least loosely related to the question asked.
No one was getting away with that on Saturday night; a moderator separate from the one asking the questions called out anyone not directly answering a question and challenged them to answer it in 30 seconds. Neither Baldwin nor Vukmir were able to avoid this and the format ensured that voters got some real answers to questions facing the candidates in the future.
The Kavanaugh question
Republicans currently hold a slim 51-49 majority in the U.S. Senate, and this race is one of 33 that will determine if the party gets a firm (or firmer) hold of national politics or if the body becomes a so-called “check” on the Trump administration if Democrats take control. One of the key powers of the Senate is its confirmation process of U.S. Supreme Court nominees.
So while questions Saturday ranged from medical marijuana to the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), it didn’t take long to get to questions about the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Baldwin bristled at how the nomination process was handled, including how her and other senators’ requests to meet with Kavanaugh prior to the nomination, but following the allegations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, were rebuffed by the White House. “It was as if they put up a wall around him after the allegations came forward,” Baldwin said.
Vukmir went on the attack, telling Baldwin she wasn’t doing her job by not being able to arrange a meeting with Kavanaugh. “You couldn’t get an opportunity to meet with someone before they are confirmed?” Vukmir asked. “That’s your job as a senator. You didn’t get that done, I put that on you.”
Baldwin countered that more than a dozen senators had tried to get meetings with Kavanaugh, with similar results.
If the Kavanaugh question seemed like a simple attempt to highlight an issue currently in the national news cycle, later questions revealed more about the future implications of the nomination. With Kavanaugh now a justice on the Supreme Court, analysts believe there’s a possibility Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court case from the 1970s allowing for abortion, could be overturned. In Wisconsin, that would make abortion instantly illegal under Wisconsin law. What would each candidate do in that case?
It seemed a question largely aimed at Baldwin. For Vukmir, the answer was not much. “I’m a nurse, and as a nurse I am 100% pro life,” Vukmir says.
Baldwin shuddered at the implications for women’s health, but after being reminded to answer the question of what would she specifically do, she said that at that point it would be up to Wisconsin lawmakers to change Wisconsin’s laws if Roe vs Wade were overturned.
Vukmir went after Baldwin for her attendance record in the U.S. Senate, implying that she rarely showed up for votes. Baldwin countered that her voting attendance was one of the best in the entire house at 99.6%, and research seems to back this up. Analysis from Ballotpedia and the National Journal noted that Baldwin’s attendance has been near perfect in her first term and she made the top ten list of attendance in a 2014 article in The Atlantic.
Following one of her most persistent campaign themes, Vukmir also went on the offensive with the 2014 Tomah VA incident involving Baldwin’s knowledge of over prescription of opiate medication at the veterans hospital. Politifact found this partially true; Baldwin didn’t make the report public until the scandal hit the news, but an ethics foundation concluded she didn’t cover anything up.
The Trump card
With a predicted blue wave on the horizon for the mid-term elections, whether to align with President Trump, whose approval ratings sit around 45% — low, but not unheard of for a president around the mid-term election — is a calculation some GOP candidates are weighing.
Vukmir positioned herself squarely in the pro-Trump camp. “I am pleased with how the president is working so hard for America,” Vukmir said when asked what policy she disagreed with Trump. She didn’t want to see the president fail and liked how he was “standing up to foreign leaders.”
Although she didn’t state any policy that she disagreed with, Vukmir did agree during an earlier question that the policy of separating families of immigrants at the nation’s border was wrong; her only counter was to allege that the same thing happened under President Obama.
Vukmir’s position on Trump has changed, despite her claims otherwise. Vukmir said in an interview with Fox Business News that “I have always been there with him, I’ve stood with him, I continue to stand with him.” Politfact ranked this statement as false, pointing out that she endorsed current Gov. Scott Walker during his brief run for the GOP nomination for president, then backed Marc Rubio through his run, and ultimately voted for Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary, according to Politifact. She then jumped on the Trump bandwagon in the general Presidential election in 2016.
That appears to be water under the bridge. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, President Trump has offered to campaign for Vukmir, and she welcomes that help.
The more surprising bit: Baldwin said there were “actually, quite a few” of Trump’s policies she agreed with, and the record supports that assertion. She backed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, which Trump signed in Kenosha, and agreed with Trump’s re-negotiating of some trade agreements.
Baldwin disagrees with much else on the president’s agenda, such as immigration and especially the Affordable Care Act. Baldwin recently led the Democratic push to overturn the Trump administration’s rule allowing short-term, cheaper health insurance plans, which can deny coverage such as pre-existing conditions, emergency care and maternity care—the kind of plans that the ACA was in large part designed to ban.
Marijuana and closing arguments
With 16 county and two city referendums throughout the state focusing on the idea of introducing medical marijuana to the state this coming election, the question was put to both candidates with wildly differing results.
Baldwin offered that the federal government should downgrade the status. Currently marijuana is a Schedule I drug under federal rules, meaning it has no medical use and public research is disallowed. Because of that, research that could demonstrate the positive medical benefits of marijuana, or debunk them, is impossible to carry out.
Vukmir took the inverse argument: That marijuana has no medical use, and therefore should remain a Schedule I drug, along with heroin and LSD. Meth and cocaine, meanwhile, are considered Schedule II drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
In the debate, Vukmir decried all forms of marijuana use, and claimed that marijuana is more addictive than heroin or methamphetamine.
According to a report on the DEA’s website, one in six who try smoking marijuana will become addicted. The DEA’s site didn’t have similar statistics for heroin. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Addiction, one in four people who try heroin will become addicted.
Not all Republicans agree with Vukmir’s stance. Her position is a stark contrast, for example, to that of Republican State Assembly candidate Patrick Snyder, who told City Pages that he supports the idea of medical marijuana, though with tighter regulations than California had prior to full legalization; he wants them prescribed only by a doctor to their patient. And, he told City Pages, it would take an enormous amount of convincing that recreational marijuana would be a good idea. As it stands, he’s firmly against it.
Following the debate, Baldwin spent about ten minutes answering media questions, exceeding the tight five minute window offered by producers after the program. Vukmir, though slated to appear for media interviews afterward, didn’t show. Instead a campaign spokesperson confirmed she would not be coming out for the pre-arranged interview and when asked why, made comments about Vukmir winning the debate and wouldn’t directly answer inquiries why she wasn’t meeting with reporters as scheduled.
In her closing arguments, Vukmir painted Baldwin as a party extremist, out of touch with the average voter; she painted herself as a “mom with a cause.”
Baldwin touted herself as someone willing to stand up to corporate overreach and cast Vukmir as an apologist of the big insurance companies and special interest groups.