U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and her challenger, Republican Leah Vukmir, clashed over immigration, veterans, health care, abortion, Brett Kavanaugh, and other topics in a raucous and at times acrimonious debate in the Wisconsin Senate race.
Baldwin – who leads in recent polls by an average 11 percentage points – accused her opponent, a long-time state Legislator, of “using a Marine veteran’s death for her own gain.” Vukmir outright accused Baldwin, the Democrat, of lying, and graphically described partial birth abortion, saying, “Tammy Baldwin would rip that life out of a mother.” She also took Baldwin to task over the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center opioid controversy, waving an ethics complaint that Baldwin said was dismissed (you can read a past article about that here.)
In turn, Baldwin cited her efforts to help pass “Jason’s Law,” more formally known as the Jason Simcakoski Memorial and Promise Act. That law pledged to strength communication and prescribing guidelines at VA medical facilities, among other measures. Simcakoski died of a drug overdose in 2014 at the Tomah VA; his parents and wife are supporting Baldwin. The federal government paid $2.3 million to the family in that death. According to The Wisconsin State Journal, an Inspector General’s report later documented over prescription of opioids by doctors at the VA. Baldwin disciplined aides for not acting immediately on reports about the problem.
The debate – the first in the race – took place at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in front of a raucous crowd that seemed dominated vocally at times by Baldwin supporters. Some audience members broke into applause at points during the debate in favor of Baldwin and shouted things like “false” to some of Vukmir’s statements. Vukmir did have a contingent of supporters in the audience as well. You can watch the debate video here:
Baldwin, the incumbent, has served in the U.S. Senate since 2013. There is a large money differential in the race. According to Open Secrets.org, Baldwin has raised $22 million in the race to Vukmir’s $2 million. There are 35 Senate seats on the ballot in 2018, with Democrats hoping to flip some of the nine that are currently held by Republicans in their quest to seize back control of the Senate.
After the debate, in a press conference, Baldwin lamented her opponent’s tone. Vukmir bypassed the scrum of reporters, leaving the debate hall and campus when it was over.
The pair clashed over pretty much everything during the debate, including immigration (and Donald Trump’s border wall proposal) and the Affordable Care act, among other topics. Vukmir, the challenger, adopted the more pointed and aggressive tone at times. “Senator Baldwin doesn’t understand …day-to-day challenges. She is far more comfortable with her friends in the Hamptons than she is at a Friday night fish fry in Wisconsin. When a veteran died at the Tomah VA, her only concern was her own job,” Vukmir said at one point.
Baldwin accused her challenger of wanting to take the state backwards on issues ranging from health care to abortion and repeatedly referred to joining bipartisan measures on contentious topics like immigration. “I believe as a fundamental value that all Americans deserve affordable and quality health insurance…doing nothing would cost more,” said Baldwin.
Asked about the #metoo movement, Baldwin, who voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination, said she supported his accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. “To the young people who watched the hearing with Dr. Ford, I personally found her to be credible and compelling. I believe her. But despite the outcome, I don’t want that to silence a new generation who I know are scared right now,” Baldwin said.
She said people need to speak their truths and “need to be heard” but said that “means due process on all sides.” Vukmir pounced on that line, saying she has to “take a breath when I hear Senator Baldwin talk about due process…You didn’t even meet with him (Kavanaugh). That is absolutely another example of how Senator Baldwin doesn’t do her job. She has been missing from her job.”
Vukmir said the #Metoo movement was “cheapened by her actions… she wouldn’t even follow through on the due process of Judge Kavanaugh.” Vukmir said she believes “Something did happen to Dr. Ford, but there was nothing to corroborate and to link that to Judge Kavanaugh, and you didn’t have the decency to even meet with the man.”
However, Kavanaugh – and Trump – didn’t factor into the debate very much. It was dominated by clashes over policy issues, for the most part.
Here’s where the candidates broke down on some of the issues:
Vukmir said her son is in the U.S. Army. She said veterans need more “choices and options.” She said Vukmir “turned her back on the veterans at the Tomah VA. It is absolutely disgraceful that for months she sat on a report that she and only she had that detailed the extent to which our veterans were being over prescribed opioids.”
Vukmir waved what she said was an “ethics complaint from one of your staff members” and accused Baldwin of offering “taxpayer-funded hush money” to silence her. “I will always stand for our veterans,” said Vukmir. (You can read a Politifact article relating to the Tomah VA controversy here.)
Baldwin responded, “I think that Leah Vukmir should be ashamed of herself for using a Marine veteran’s death for her own political gain. When I learned about over prescribing across the VA system but particularly at Tomah, I worked with that Marine veteran’s family…We have made a significant difference.”
She said the ethics complaint was dismissed and stamped without merit.
Affordable Care Act
Baldwin accused Vukmir of imperiling the health care of people with preexisting conditions.
She accused Vukmir of wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and going back to the “bad old days.” She added, “Costs are too high.” Asked how she was going to pay for the approach, she claimed that “doing nothing would cost more. I want to get to the point where all Americans have access to affordable, quality coverage.” She again referred to the “bad old days.”
Baldwin said she was trying to find a bipartisan solution to fix the health care issue. “Costs are too high,” she said.
Vukmir countered that Baldwin’s approach was too expensive and could cost trillions of dollars. She called it “Baldwin care. Under her plan, the Affordable Care Act goes away, Medicare goes away, everything that we know about insurance goes away…she wants to completely turn our health care over to the government…”
She added, “Who are you going to trust to solve our health care problems, a career politician… or a nurse… Senator Baldwin’s plan is going to gut everything.” She said she wasn’t sure if Baldwin was “ignorant of this or if it’s because you are trying to deceive people on this preexisting condition issue.” If Obamacare “goes away today, guess what, people will still have coverage for preexisting condition. So Senator Baldwin is lying. She is lying to the people of the State… I would fall in front of a truck before I would let people, people go without coverage for pre-existing conditions.”
Vukmir said she wanted to let “consumerism take hold.” She accused Baldwin using a “scare tactic to save her job.”
Vukmir stressed that she was the daughter of Greek immigrants and other family members who were “excited to become Americans.” She added, “We must build that wall… once we have that guarantee of border security, then we can go through a process.” She said just granting citizenship is “not fair to all of those who have come before.” She said she supports a “merit-based system.”
She said the wall is “also important from the perspective of human trafficking, drug trafficking, MS-13 gang members. This is the open borders philosophy that Senator Baldwin embraces. I don’t embrace that.” She said the wall is important from a public health standpoint. “People are coming across the border and we have no control of public health.”
Baldwin responded that the country should take a “comprehensive approach” with “stronger border security,” “pathway to citizenship for Dreamers” and that stops the “odious practice of snatching babies from their mothers.” On the wall issue, she advocated looking into using “smart technology.”
According to Baldwin, “I am focused on solutions, and not just politics. And we have seen this President take aim at blocking immigration from certain countries…limit how asylum claims can be made.” She said the dairy industry relies on immigrant labor.
Abortion & the Paycheck Fairness Act
On the Paycheck Fairness Act, Baldwin said, “I strongly support the Paycheck Fairness Act….She would take us backwards.”
Vukmir said she trusts that an employer will make decisions on the “qualities and the merits of individuals, and of course I want people to have equal pay for the same jobs they’re doing, but when you have government coming in and setting it, this is problematic.”
She added, “There are various reasons why women are paid different amounts…maybe they’re only working part-time when they’re having children.”
On late-term abortions, Baldwin said, “I support a woman’s right to choose. I don’t believe government should interfere with a woman’s health and whether or when she should have a child… My opponent has been the very extreme of this issue. She has supported legislation that would ban in vitro fertilization…access to some forms of contraception, and would ban stem cell research….I strongly oppose any limitations, like defunding Planned Parenthood…I believe that a woman should make her health care decisions.”
“I am 100% pro life,” Vukmir said. “I’m a nurse. I can’t even imagine not being pro life. You want to talk about extreme, Senator Baldwin. Extreme is voting for a partial birth abortion. It is the most disgusting thing that can happen, that the arms and legs of a baby are pulled out of their mother. The brain is sucked out. That is vile. And you talk about a woman’s right to choose. It’s a woman’s right to kill her baby. It’s wrong. That is extreme, Senator Baldwin.”
Vukmir added: “Tammy Baldwin would rip that life out of a mother just like that and snuff that life out. It’s wrong. It’s wrong, and you voted for that Senator Baldwin.”
Tariffs & Guns
Baldwin said she agreed with Trump that NAFTA needed to be renegotiated because too many manufacturing jobs had left the country. “Our dairy community is in crisis. Our manufacturing sector needs additional help.” She said some of the tariffs were “causing a lot of those challenges.”
She said she wanted the president to focus on countries “that cheat” not on trading allies like Mexico and Canada.
Vukmir said “we’ve known this president is a good negotiator. The Art of the Deal, he wrote that book. He’s taken us from a situation where… we had unfair trade practices going on for quite some time….No one thought he would bring the EU to the table, and he did.” She also cited Mexico and Canada.
The real “bad actor in all of this” is China, she added. “I’m going to trust him…We are headed in the direction that is absolutely necessary.”
On guns, daily gun violence, and mass shootings, Vukmir said, “I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment….we have to continue to reinforce people’s abilities to protect themselves.” She also said the mental health “side of issues” should be looked at, including the “sharing of information.”
Baldwin said she is a gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment, which she said is consistent “with common sense safety measures,” including “comprehensive background checks,” banning bump stocks at minimum, and going after straw purchasers.
You can read a fact-checking of some of the debate’s key moments here.