In the first of three scheduled debates, on October 8 in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S. Senate challenger Leah Vukmir held her own against the shrewd veteran Tammy Baldwin. While Sen. Baldwin scored points as a gun owner who favors “common-sense” restrictions on gun ownership, the two went toe-to-toe on health care, abortion, and better treatment for veterans.
Going into the debate, Baldwin’s most recent lead in the polls, as of September 16, was 11 percent. RealClearPolitics has had Baldwin ahead by from 10 to 14 percent all summer and into autumn.
Yet Vukmir did not sound or look a second-rate candidate. She acted like a viable challenger, as if she were more like 3 to 6 percent behind in the polls. In 2012’s Senate race, Baldwin beat former governor Tommy Thompson by 120,000 votes, while Barack Obama won the state by more than 210,000 votes. There’s no presidential candidate in this contest, and the turnout is likely to be much lower than in 2012.
Here’s the Blow by Blow
Vukmir is no Lindsey Graham, but she never lost her sangfroid. A live debate is a great chance to make a candidate try to think on her feet, and Vukmir was relaxed and energetic in her responses. She accurately hit just about every point she wanted to make, and was especially sharp on partial-birth abortion.
Although Vukmir may have slightly overplayed her experience as a professional hospital nurse as a validation for her positions on health-related issues, she did not back down on what she believed was needed to replace Obamacare, and why. She was heartfelt about her family’s emigration from Greece to America, and she was respectful of immigrants in general while sticking to her guns on the need to re-establish the United States’s southern borders.
Baldwin was more prepared on trade and economics, and she smoothly aligned herself with President Trump’s policies on tariffs, trade, and dairy farmers’ challenges, an important segment of Wisconsin’s small-business community. While Vukmir had fewer facts at her fingertips, she was able to point out—softly—how successful Trump has been in that area of policy, while before Trump Baldwin’s efforts on trade had gone nowhere.
Baldwin, with the confidence of an incumbent front-runner, did a good job of carving out her image as an individual, not a knee-jerk Democrat or puppet of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. She too was relaxed, and although she paused in her responses a little longer than was necessary, she came across as intimately knowing her state and its voters’ issues.
What Vukmir Can Learn for Next Time
From her side, Vukmir could have punched harder, but there were no major gaps or gaffes in her self-presentation. She certainly looked like she belonged on the same stage with Baldwin.
There are two more debates. As the underdog, Vukmir needs to punch a little harder, increasing from counter-punching well in debate two to getting a knockdown or two in debate three.
With desperately low turnout in Wisconsin in most midterms, Vukmir needs President Trump to go there—maybe to Green Bay or Oshkosh—and fire up the turnout outside of Milwaukee and Madison. At this point, with Trump making a splash for candidates in Minnesota, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, he will look like he’s deliberately neglecting Vukmir if doesn’t go to Wisconsin, which could prove to be a big error. Here’s why.
Prior Wisconsin Votes Show Leah Vukmir Has a Chance
My analysis has Wisconsin close, but likely to shift toward Vukmir. To understand that apparent anomaly relative to the polls, please look at the table below.
The first point to emphasize is that Trump won Wisconsin with the decisive blue-collar vote. Small-town and rural Wisconsin went for Trump, and the large cities and suburbs went for Hillary Clinton to almost exactly the same degree.
Between 2012 and 2016, Janesville was finally rejected for any new General Motors plant, after four generations of United Auto Workers union members had spent their entire working careers with GM. What are the odds Janesville will give Baldwin another 16,000-vote victory margin in 2018? Even in 2012, Green Bay and Oshkosh were not exactly in love with the Democratic Party.
Point number two: the city and suburb majority for Baldwin this year is unlikely to be more than she won in 2012. With no presidential candidate on the ballot, Madison and Milwaukee are unlikely to turn out in greater numbers, even if Baldwin’s percentage of the city and suburban vote remains very high.
Point three: the small town and rural turnout will be crucial for Vukmir in this election. Baldwin is playing hard for the farm vote. Without rousing enthusiasm triggered by a visit from President Trump, Vukmir could easily lose by 8,000-15,000 votes. It would be a terrific showing for a first-time statewide candidate running against a street-smart fox, but it wouldn’t do Trump or the Republicans a bit of good. It would be a waste. The Donald should go back to his schedule and make room for a “Leah Rally.”
How Vukmir Should Prepare for the Next Debate
Maybe the next round of polls will show Vukmir closing the gap. In the next debate, October 13 in Wausau, Baldwin is likely to come in ready to attack, or “loaded for bear.” Baldwin likely will try to embarrass Vukmir or ruin her rhythm or timing—rookie mistakes. Vukmir will need sharp prep and a cool temperament to meet an attack if it comes.
If Vukmir can stand firm and not get tongue-tied or thrown off balance, she will put herself in good position to return the favor on October 19 in Milwaukee, where the third and final debate is scheduled.
Vukmir should consider pushing hard on Baldwin’s non-Wisconsin credentials—her heavy donations from outside, acting as a willing co-conspirator in the Brett Kavanaugh lynch mob—but only in the context that Vukmir would bring Wisconsin values and attitudes into an administration that shares and promotes those values, which Baldwin only suddenly rediscovers once every six years.
All in all, Tammy’s been in DC too long. She can still milk a cow and be a cheesehead at home, but her heart is in the nation’s capital, and it shows in her votes and political decisions. She just barely tries hard enough to be a Wisconsinite to play the role when an election turns up.
The finale offers a big opportunity to make bold statements that cannot be refuted or rehashed in a further debate. Of course, outright falsehoods are not a good idea, since the press has plenty of time to fact-check or rebut. If Vukmir remains upbeat and on an even keel in debate two, she well may score strongly in debate three.
It is hard to put a value on this, but in her smiling, cheerful, positive demeanor and general appearance, Vukmir seems to be another Nikki Haley in the making.