Will This Video Sink Tommy Thompson's Wisconsin Senate Hopes?


Footage from June shows the GOP candidate promising to "do away with Medicaid and Medicare."

Memo to Republicans: Just stay away from cameras, all cameras. And if you can, travel back in time and implement this advice in April or so.

First, of course, there was the video of Mitt Romney talking about the "47 percent" at a May fundraiser. And now there's this video of Wisconsin candidate for U.S. Senate Tommy Thompson at a June Tea Party meeting:

The quote that's causing Thompson grief is this one:

Who better than me, who's already finished one of the entitlement programs, to come up with programs to do away with Medicaid and Medicare?

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains that Thompson -- who was previously governor and also secretary of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration, is referring to welfare reform during his term as governor.

The clip, which has reportedly been circulated by liberal groups in the state, is damaging for obvious reasons: People like Medicare, and they don't want it to go away. (The poor, who like Medicaid, are much less likely to vote.) But there's another reason the video hurts. Thompson isn't exactly advocating getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid -- he's calling for giving seniors subsidies for Medicare, and block-granting Medicaid to states. That's roughly what the national GOP, including Mitt Romney and fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, have suggested too. The Romney-Ryan plan is unpopular enough with most voters, but Republican insist they want to preserve these Great Society programs by making them solvent in the long term, even as President Obama and his allies accuse the GOP of trying to destroy them. And now here comes Tommy Thompson, essentially validating the Democrats' attack.

It's not hard to guess what might have been going through Thompson's head at the time. Despite his long and successful career, he was locked in a tight primary battle with two Tea Party-identifying opponents who were questioning his conservative bona fides. Describing his plan this way would be attractive to his Tea Party audience in June. But now, in late September, it doesn't look so hot. Liberal journalists like Josh Marshall are already doing their victory dance. That might be premature, but the video is clearly not going to help him, and he already trails Democrat Tammy Baldwin in most recent polls (both are vying to replace retiring Democrat Herb Kohl).

Thompson's struggles constitute another strange twist to recent Wisconsin political history. As Molly Ball has written, the Badger State has come to dominate the conservative wing of the Republican Party lately. But despite Paul Ryan's addition to the Republican presidential ticket, Obama has maintained an thin edge in the state -- and Baldwin leads Thompson, too. All politics may be local, but it's by no means monolithic.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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