Battleground Dispatches: Q&A with Wisconsin’s Andy Soth

BY Mike Melia  November 5, 2012 at 8:50 PM EST

In the last days of the campaign, voters in Wisconsin see a final push by both campaigns to win this battleground state. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The spotlight on Wisconsin and their 10 electoral votes grew stronger on Monday. President Obama campaigned alongside Bruce Springsteen in Madison and the Associated Press added the states to its list of tossups.

Jeffrey Brown reported last week on how the ground game by both campaigns could be the key to victory.

On Monday, we spoke with Andy Soth of Wisconsin Public Television and editor of WisconsinVote.org on the state of the race in Wisconsin. Soth discussed some surprising topics cropping up in the competitive Senate race in the state. Soth will be among a group of Public Media reporters on the NewsHour’s Election Night Special.

NEWSHOUR: President Obama was in Wisconsin again Monday and the Associated Press moved it to its official toss up list. What makes Wisconsin so close this time around?

SOTH: It has a lot to do with the independence of the state and the electorate. Wisconsin is not a state where people register by party, so there is not strong party affiliation. In the last several election cycles voters have proven themselves to swing wildly. Now, Mr. Obama’s visit here is aimed at getting out the base. There are strong bases for both parties that are equal and the decision goes to those independents that remain.

NEWSHOUR: Tuesday, what counties or areas are you watching closely? What counties or districts should we be keeping our eye on?

SOTH: As the president was here in Madison, there is a desire to energize the student base and this is the heart of the government workforce which is solidly Democratic. But I think they need those folks to get a strong turnout to add to those numbers, I suspect in Waukesha and Ozaukee and Washington counties are the heart of the Republican base and they are on a winning streak and organized coming off the governor recall. Their turnout will be strong and Democrats are looking for a strong counter balance to that. Also, the president was up in Brown county in Green Bay, that is more the swing area. Brown county and adjacent counties like Outagamie county have gone back and forth in the last elections from Bush to Obama and then to support [Republican] Gov. Walker during the recall.

NEWSHOUR: What is contributing to the Green Bay area independence or unpredictability this time?

SOTH: It is an area that has been traditionally a swing area. It has not had strong party affiliation. In the past there was union strength throughout the Fox River Valley with the paper industry there, but then it has also been a socially conservative area, heavily Catholic area. There is a duality and it has often been a swing area. What might be influencing decisions now are views of the economy, but I don’t think they are set in stone. Both parties’ philosophies are being employed to improve the economy. We have Gov. Walker who ran on the jobs issue and is doing the best of the conservative approach in terms of limiting government regulation, incentive business, while at the same time we received some stimulus funding. It depends on whose economy you think you’re living under that might affect your decision if jobs and economy are your issue.

NEWSHOUR: What role has the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan had on the race there? Did it energize the Republicans?

SOTH: I think it did initially. It wasn’t really a perception that Wisconsin was up for play because Obama had done so well here previously and was polling well. But that did seem to change after Rep. Ryan’s selection. At least it got the Romney campaign to want to invest and put the state in play. We also saw Romney do better after the first debate. He polled better here as well. Ryan was up in Green Bay [Sunday] as well and the question is how well known or appealing he is outside of his own district. He is very popular in his own district, even in Rock county that went strongly for Obama. He has had good support there.

NEWSHOUR: You not only have the presidential contest that voters decide Tuesday, but you also have a hard fought Senate race. Can you give us a brief description of the candidates and issues driving that race?

SOTH: We have on the Republican side Former Gov. Tommy Thompson. He was governor for many years and left to join the Bush administration as Secretary of Health and Human Services. He was a very successful governor, always did very well in electoral politics and was a master retail politician. In his primary fight he had a lot of the same struggles as Romney in that he had to make a deliberate move to the right. His track record in Wisconsin had been more of a moderate, more of a deal make. Tammy Baldwin is a longtime congresswoman from the Madison area. She previously represented the area in the state assembly before running for congress. Strategically she was able right after the primary to start painting Thompson as very extreme, very conservative. It took awhile for Thompson after depleting his campaign funds to get back and run counter attacks talking about Baldwin’s liberal voting record.

Interestingly, the issues that the campaigns have been talking about seem a little out there, a little outside day-to-day concerns. There have been issues about 9/11. It started with Thompson criticizing Baldwin for not voting for a resolution to honor victims of 9/11. Baldwin disputed that was not what that bill really was about and she thought it was more politicizing. She countered with attacks on Thompson’s post-health secretary career working in the healthcare providing and medical industry that he benefited through some nice contracts to provide health services to 9/11 first responders. Then there was an issue about Iran which seems like a very unusual issue to come up, but there was some criticism Baldwin had about investments that Thompson had in a mining company that mined for uranium for Iran to use and Thompson was countering that she didn’t sign onto a bill condemning Ahmadinejad. These are the most pointed attacks going back and forth from the campaigns. One of our conservative columnists here said for all the outcry against the third party and outside interest groups that they seem to be more on target in terms of the issues that are more important to voters.

NEWSHOUR: Andy thanks for taking the time to talk with us and look forward to having you on Tuesday night for our NewsHour Election Night Special.

SOTH: Thank you.