Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson met for their first debate Friday night in the top-tier Wisconsin Senate race. And in a state that has seen more than its fair share of political division over the past two years, including a gubernatorial recall election this past spring, the candidates tended to play things more low key — though they still traded plenty of barbs throughout the evening.
“I’ve spent my time in Washington being a voice for the struggles of middle-class families, and standing up to powerful interests like Wall Street, Big Oil, and the big health insurance companies,” Baldwin said in her opening remarks. “My opponent spent his time in Washington helping these same powerful interests. I have taken on powerful interests on behalf of ordinary citizens. My opponent has taken on powerful special interests as clients. So ask yourself tonight, who is better to represent the middle class?”
Thompson was elected to four terms as governor in the 1980’s and and 1990’s, before leaving office to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Throughout the debate, he sought to tout that record.
“I was governor of this great state for 14 years. While I was governor of this great state, we cut taxes 91 times. We reformed welfare and gave people an opportunity to work. We reformed health care and built the best health care possible for poor, middle-income, and people all over the state. It was acknowledged as the best health care in the country. I also was able to be the architect for Part D, for Medicare people (sic), so seniors were able to get drugs.”
He also frequently castigated Baldwin, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as being out of the mainstream: “My opponent is ranked as the number-one liberal in the United States House of Representatives. That’s a pretty hard ranking to get to when you know that she is the number one spender in the House of Representatives. It’s difficult to be able, with all those spenders, to be number one — and she has been able to succeed in that capacity.”
Baldwin soon shot back, by looking back at the record of Thompson and other Republicans in the Bush years.
“You know, sometimes the definitions that we think we associate with words like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ the name calling, it just gets kind of crazy,” said Baldwin. “I look at how we got into the fiscal mess that we’re in right now as a nation. And during the Bush years we had two unfunded tax cuts, two unfunded wars, and an enormous unfunded Medicare Part D benefit — in which my opponent gave a sweetheart deal to the drug companies that made it illegal for Medicare to bargain for better prices for seniors. That’s, by my quick math, about $3.5 trillion, unfunded, on the credit cards, debt to our children and grandchildren.
“And they call that a conservative? The words have lost their meaning.”
On an interesting note, both candidates discussed the need for serious rule changes in the Senate — with Thompson going so far as to call for abolishing both the filibuster and the placing of holds on nominations.
“The 60 percent rule in the U.S. Senate should be done away with. Being able to put a cloture vote in, being able to put a mark in so that somebody doesn’t get approved — those are yesterday’s procedures. All of those procedures in the united states senate should be modernized so that 52 percent — 51 percent, 50 percent of the people in the Senate can make policy, and move this country forward.”
Baldwin said: “I agree there ought to be rule reform in the U.S. Senate. And I also think members of Congress shouldn’t get paid if they don’t pass a budget.”
The candidates were also asked about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations, in which he held up a cartoon bomb drawing to represent Iran’s nuclear program, and drew a red line on it with a marker.
In his response, Thompson took a hard line — and notably mispronounced some key names.
“It is necessary to prevent Iran and Ahmadinejan (sic) — who is an individual that is somewhat mentally impaired, who believes that the Holocaust never existed, believes that Israel should be destroyed, and has threatened america that they’re going to blockade the Gulf of Hormuth (sic), which would block all the oil going worldwide, and it would enter us into a world depression.
“Sooner or later, unless we draw the red line that Benjamin Netanyahu wants, we’re gonna have the problem of Iran having a nuclear bomb. We cannot afford that. It will end up in a world war. So we’ve got to stop them. My opponent in 2006, 2009 and 2010 voted against the sanctions of Iran. Only now, three months before the election, she’s now for them. And I believe that it’s time for us to draw the red line and say, no more, Ahmadinejan (sic). We are going to stop you, and you are not gonna have a nuclear bomb. We cannot afford to allow that individual and that country to have a nuclear bomb.”
Baldwin responded: “Iran must not become capable of creating a nuclear weapon. I support the president, who has said that all options remain on the table. And I believe this is an area where we have to stand united as Americans on this foreign policy. I have voted for tough and biting sanctions against Iran and believe that that process needs to continue to play itself out. All options on the table, but i also would never frivolously — not quite the right word — I would never without thoughtful plans send our men and women into harm’s way, without an exit strategy and an assurance that we are going to be effective.”
Notably, both candidates agreed that it is past time for troops to come home from Afghanistan — with Baldwin saying the mission in response to the 9/11 attacks was accomplished a long time ago, and Thompson saying that United States lacked the desire to win a continued war, and did not have an exit strategy.
A poignant moment came on discussion of gay marriage. Wisconsin passed a state amendment to ban gay marriage in 2006. If she were to be elected, Baldwin would be the first openly gay senator ever; in 1998, she was the first openly gay candidate elected to Congress as a non-incumbent. In response to a question about gay marriage, Thompson seemed uncertain how to answer the question effectively.
“71 out of the 72 counties voted for a constitutional amendment in Wisconsin, and I support those 71 counties, that, uh —” Thompson said, then pausing for a few seconds, “that same-sex marriage is not legal in the state of Wisconsin. And I support that. It’s an issue that’s left up to the states, and that’s where it should be.”
For her part, Baldwin invoked President Obama’s recent change of position on the issue.
“I believe in principles of equality, and I certainly support marriage equality,” Baldwin said. “I recognize what the voters of Wisconsin decided back in 2006. We know that every year, people are thinking about this issue and changing their minds. I was very moved when I saw the president’s interview, in which he talked about his journey to support marriage equality. He talked about the parents of his daughters’ friends; he talked about meeting soldiers serving our country; he talked about all of the conversations along the way that got him to change his mind. I think that’s what’s happening across America.”
The seat is being vacated by Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, who has served for 24 years. And state Republicans have made huge gains in the past two years, picking up the state’s other Senate seat and the governorship in 2010, plus Gov. Scott Walker’s successful defense of his governorship in the June recall.
But going into the debate, Baldwin has recently jumped into a huge newfound lead in the PollTracker Average, leading 51.4 percent to 41.5 percent, and it has also become increasingly more likely that President Obama could carry the state for a second time.