This time last year, a Democratic law firm persuaded a handful of Wisconsin TV stations to take down an ad targeting their Senate candidate over the Tomah VA scandal, resulting in a convoluted back-and-forth between the campaign and the political group.
One year later, the story is repeating itself — this time with a different Senate candidate and a different PAC. And the Tomah ads are on the radio, not on TV.
Lawyers with the Perkins Coie firm representing Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin's campaign sent letters to radio stations on Thursday urging them to stop airing an ad sponsored by the conservative Iowa-based Americas PAC. At least one station had removed the ad as of Friday afternoon.
The ad accuses Baldwin of being slow to react to a whistleblower's reports of excessive opioid prescriptions at the Tomah VA hospital.
"When disabled veterans were counting on her, Tammy Baldwin blinked. Deadly mistakes," the ad's narrator says. "Three disabled veterans died. When facing security challenges from Russia, China and ISIS, will Tammy Baldwin make another mistake?"
Perkins Coie attorney Jonathon Berkon accused Americas PAC of playing "fast and loose with the facts, disseminating a falsehood to score political points and acting recklessly in an area that deserves our utmost sensitivity" in a letter sent to station managers on Thursday.
The ad's claim that "three disabled veterans died" as a result of mistakes made by Baldwin's office is false, Berkon wrote.
Americas PAC head Tom Donelson said on Friday he stands by the ad and its contents, referring to Perkins Coie as a "legal goon squad for Democrats on things of this nature."
Donelson said the letters to stations on Baldwin's behalf amounted to an intimidation effort, "opening the doors to outright censorship."
"I'm going to stand by the ad's accuracy. What we state are the facts," Donelson said. "How people interpret those, how they interpret Tammy Baldwin's responsibility, that's up to the voters to decide what case can be made."
Baldwin drew scrutiny in 2015 after reports indicated her office responded slowly to complaints patients at the Tomah VA had been prescribed large amounts of opiate medications.
Baldwin was asked about her role in the Tomah scandal at a town hall meeting in Milwaukee last month, by a woman who said she works at the Milwaukee VA.
The senator said she has worked with the family of Jason Simcakoski, a Marine veteran who died of an overdose at the Tomah VA in 2014, to pass legislation in his honor that requires VA employees prescribing opioids to be better trained and to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
Baldwin also said she wished her office had done more to follow up on complaints it received from a whistleblower, rather than simply forwarding information back to the whistleblower.
"When tragedy struck at the Tomah VA hospital, Tammy Baldwin led the way, working with the VFW and American Legion to make sure our veterans got the care they deserved. And it’s Tammy's bill that Democrats and Republicans passed, establishing stronger opioid prescribing guidelines at Tomah and at VAs across the country, mandating training for doctors who prescribe opioids, and increasing accountability throughout the system," said Baldwin campaign manager Scott Spector. "It's shameful that a shady super PAC, funded by an out-of-state multi-millionaire, is running these false attack ads against Tammy when she was the one who fought for these reforms."
Donelson said his group will continue with this ad and others planned for the campaign. He told the Cap Times last month he expects the effort to unseat Baldwin will be a priority for his group.
Americas PAC has purchased 12,000 radio ads set to run over the next five months, Donelson said.
"Let's just put it this way," Donelson said. "If she didn't like this ad, she won't like the next one either."
No Republican candidates have formally entered the race to challenge Baldwin, who is serving her first term in the Senate after representing Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District for seven terms.
Her re-election bid will come two years after an upset win by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who defeated former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold for a second time in 2016.
Americas PAC ran a Spanish-language radio ad during that race that accused Feingold of not wanting Hispanic babies to be born. The ad was similar to others run in past campaigns by the group, which used similar language to encourage black and Latino voters to support Gov. Scott Walker in his 2014 campaign against Democrat Mary Burke.
Americas PAC was formed with the goal of encouraging racial minority groups to vote Republican, but the group has expanded its focus now to include "Trump Republicans" — specifically single, white women, Donelson said last month.
The group's controversial, aggressive tactics have earned rebuke from the left and the right, particularly when the group was still led by its founder Richard Nadler, who died in 2009.
Records show the group's largest funder is Richard Uihlein, CEO of the Uline shipping supply company headquartered in Pleasant Prairie. Mary Kohler, vice president of the Sheboygan-based Windway Foundation, is another major donor.
Donelson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel funding for the ad was provided by Solutions for Wisconsin, a super PAC that recently received $2 million from Uihlein.
Solutions for Wisconsin has endorsed U.S. Marine veteran and businessman Kevin Nicholson, an expected candidate who has not officially announced his plans.
Asked to confirm that Solutions for Wisconsin had paid for the ads, Donelson stepped back from his initial answer.
"Wait 'til the financial reports and you can decide for yourselves and we'll leave it at that. The report will have all the answers you need," Donelson said.
Other rumored Republican challengers include businessman Eric Hovde; state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau; state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa; state Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield; and Nicole Schneider of the Schneider National trucking company family.