Brutal 9/11 ad takes center stage in Wisconsin Senate race

October 23, 2012

Eleven years after Sept. 11, 2001, that day's terrorist attacks are rearing their head in a major way in one of the hottest Senate races in the country.

Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson's (R) campaign today launched a brutal new ad attacking Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) for voting against a 2006 bill commemorating the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

"It's a slap in the face to every one of their families and anyone who has ever served in the United States military," a retired Navy veteran says in the ad. The man adds: "What would you do if these were your children? How would you feel?"

Baldwin did, in fact, vote against the bill. But as her campaign noted Tuesday, it was because the bill also paid tribute to more controversial and contentious things like the Patriot Act -- a piece of legislation that Baldwin and many Democrats opposed.

Here's the Post's recap from 2006:

The resolution is the legislative centerpiece of the week in the House, and each side is accusing the other of using the resolution for political gain.

The dispute is not over the resolution's conclusions, which include the continued recognition of Sept. 11 as a day of remembrance, mourning and honoring first responders.

The wrangling, instead, is over one of 15 "whereas" clauses, in which Democrats see a possible trap: "Whereas Congress passed, and the President signed, numerous laws to assist victims, combat the forces of terrorism, protect the Homeland and support members of the Armed forces who defend American interests at home and abroad, including: the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and its 2006 reauthorization; the Homeland Security Act of 2002; the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002; the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002; the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004; the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005; the Safe Port Act of 2006; and the 21st Century Emergency Communications Act of 2006."

Democrats can vote for the resolution and in so doing, praise controversial legislation that many of them opposed. Or they can vote against the resolution and be portrayed as forsaking the victims and heroes of 9/11.

And today, that's exactly what has happened.

While most Democrats yielded to the political threat of having the "voted against 9/11"mark on their political permanent records, Baldwin was one of 22 members of the House who stuck to their guns and voted 'no.' In that vote, she was joined by a who's who of liberal Democrats (Barney Frank, Dennis Kucinich, Jan Schakowsky, Lynn Woolsey) and one Republican: Rep. Ron Paul.

Baldwin's campaign was quick to point out that she has voted for numerous other resolutions honoring 9/11 -- a clear attempt to show that her opposition to the 2006 legislation was to the add-ons not the 9/11 aspect.

“The fact that Tommy Thompson would question Tammy Baldwin’s patriotism and love of America is offensive and disgusting," Baldwin spokesman John Kraus said. "Thompson’s fear-mongering and scare tactics will be rejected by the people of Wisconsin.”

Thompson's tactic is hardly new to political advertising. For years, candidates have criticized congressional incumbents for voting for bizarre earmarks, without noting that the earmarks were part of a much larger package -- potentially including very popular things that voters would support.

But using that tactic on 9/11 is really going big. Few things -- if any thing -- are more sensitive to people than an attack on home soil that killed thousands. Few politicians have used 9/11 in an ad like this and, to this day, many politicians take down their ads on the anniversary of the tragedy.

There will be an argument about whether the ad is appropriate or not, but really, this day was coming in one form or another. During her time in the House, Baldwin amassed one of the most liberal records in the chamber. That kind of record suited her constituents in Madison very well, but it's difficult to transfer statewide in a swing state.

That said, Democrats are fighting back hard and think the ad could backfire on Thompson.

They noted Tuesday that they have at the ready their own 9/11 attack on Thompson, pointing to a 2008 New York Daily News report that said the former Health and Human Services secretary was "making millions off the 9/11 tragedy." (After his tenure in George W. Bush's cabinet, a health care company that Thompson ran won an $11 million contract to track the health of those who worked at Ground Zero in the days and weeks after the attack. Republicans will argue that the Daily News quote above is over-the-top, but Democrats can still use it in attack ads if they want.)

Make no mistake: This is the most important ad of a very important Senate race. And its prosecution in the days ahead will have plenty of impact on whether Thompson or Baldwin wins and -- by extension -- whether Republicans can re-take the Senate.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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