Tammy Baldwin Tommy Thompson mashup

Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin will face former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in the Nov. 6 election for U.S. Senate.

State Journal archives

The day after officially becoming the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Tammy Baldwin jumped in a car and headed to Appleton where she planned to discuss the economy and how trade deals were costing America jobs.

It may seem an odd message for a candidate usually tarred with the mantle, "Madison Liberal," but it is an approach tailor-made for a portion of the state wrestling with job losses and the gnawing fear that Washington, D.C., has forgotten how to solve problems.

Baldwin, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives, plans to spend a lot of time in the region over the coming weeks. That's because her best chance at statewide office requires she do well along a stretch of Wisconsin that runs through the Fox Valley and turns west toward the Minnesota border.

It's a section of the state that helped deliver victory to Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2004 — and helped snatch it from his hands in 2010.

"We must remain competitive in that area to get to 51 percent," said John Kraus, Baldwin spokesman. "And we feel confident that we'll accomplish that."

Name recognition

On Tuesday, the race to replace outgoing Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl became official. From now until November, it's Baldwin versus former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Thompson, 70, has never lost a statewide race. He beat out three competitors for the chance to face Baldwin and is so well known he could run on his first name alone.

Baldwin, 50, is popular in her home district but relatively unknown elsewhere. Though she won re-election easily in 2010, she carried only three of the six counties in her district outside of Dane. To beat an icon like Thompson she will have to overcome her lack of name recognition, as well as the traditional stigma attached to politicians from one of the state's urban centers.

"She's going to have to convince people in the rural areas that she is not an extreme Madison liberal who thinks the answer is more government," said Matt Batzel, Wisconsin Executive Director for American Majority, an organization that specializes in getting conservatives elected across the state. "More government will not sell in most areas of the state."

On Tuesday, the central part of the state voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates Eric Hovde and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, both of whom were considered more conservative than Thompson. Representatives from Thompson's campaign did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment.

In 2004, Feingold won 54 of the state's 72 counties. And while he won Dane and Milwaukee counties by large margins, the 18-year senator also carried other important counties in this area like Brown, Chippewa, Eau Claire, Outagamie and Marathon. Six years later Feingold lost those counties, and the race, to millionaire Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson.

"Winning here is key to winning Wisconsin, for the Senate race and the presidential," said David Littig, UW-Green Bay political scientist and professor emeritus. "It can be more conservative, but it does swing. Obama won here in 2008."

Littig said Gov. Scott Walker recognized the area's importance so much that he practically moved there during his fight against the recall in June.

"And it seems like Baldwin is doing the same thing," he said. "But she will have to work hard, because she will have an uphill fight in this region."

Electing liberals

Scott Spector, Wisconsin Progress executive director, spends most of his days trying to get progressives elected across the state. It's his job to find, train and advise liberal candidates. So, he is acutely aware of the challenges.

"Democrats have a real problem reaching out-state, middle-class white voters," he said "These are people losing jobs, and if you want them to listen to you, to follow you, you need to have an answer for them."

So far, that has been the main thrust of the Baldwin campaign; rebuilding infrastructure, strengthening the country's manufacturing base, and reducing the tax burden on small businesses.

"To get through the primary, Tommy had to double down on tea party extremism," Kraus said. "He will have to own that as he tries to put his party back together. Meanwhile we have been traveling the state, talking about jobs and building support."

But even those who think Baldwin has a chance to pull an upset acknowledge she would have to out-perform expectations in many parts of the state.

"She doesn't have to win in all of them, but she has to lose by so little that it would end up a net gain," said Charles Franklin, Marquette Law School political science professor.