MADISON, Wis. (AP) â€” Democrats are looking to Rep. Tammy Baldwin on Tuesday to hold off a political comeback by former Gov. Tommy Thompson and prevent Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat from falling into Republican hands for the first time since 1957.
Republicans view the seat as a key pickup opportunity as they try to win control of the Senate, resulting in the race attracting national attention and record-breaking spending. The GOP wrested the state's other Senate seat from Democrats in 2010.
Baldwin, a seven-term congresswoman from Madison, would become the country's first openly gay candidate elected to Senate seat if she wins. Thompson, who spent 14 years as governor before becoming President George W. Bush's health secretary in 2001, has never lost a statewide race but is on the ballot for the first time since 1998.
The seat is open due to the retirement of Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, who has held the office since 1989.
Many saw the election as Thompson's to lose when he got into the race, given that he was well-liked as governor and had won statewide races four times before. But Thompson found himself faced with three more conservative Republicans during the primary election in August that forced him to spend millions of campaign dollars. He barely won with 34 percent of the vote.
Thompson, 70, said the primary left him broke and exhausted.
Baldwin seized on the opportunity. She and her supporters outspent Thompson 3-to-1 on television advertising in the weeks after the primary, which helped her surge in the polls heading into the November election. Baldwin, 50, had run unopposed in the Democratic primary.
During her campaign, Baldwin argued that Thompson was not the same man who Wisconsin voters had repeatedly elected to office since 1966. She stressed how he made millions of dollars in the private sector while working for a high-powered Washington law firm and a variety of health companies since 2005.
Thompson told voters that Baldwin was too extreme for Wisconsin, noting her support for universal health care and a voting record that consistently found her ranked as one of the most liberal members of Congress. He specifically stressed that her position on federal health care reform was even more liberal than President Barack Obama's by advocating for more government oversight.
They also sparred over each other's approach toward Medicare. One ad running against Thompson showed him telling a tea party group in June that he supported doing away with Medicare and Medicaid. Thompson said he supported a version of the plan put forward by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
Ads against Baldwin, meanwhile, tried to portray her as an extremist and frequently used footage of her from a recent rally shouting, "You're damn right!"
Much of the campaign has been fought by outside interests pouring millions into a barrage of such television ads. It's pushed total spending on the race to more than $65 million â€” making it the most expensive Senate race in Wisconsin history and one of the most expensive in the country this year.
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