7 Key Moments From the Bruising U.S. Senate Debate Between Tammy Baldwin & Leah Vukmir

Friday’s senate debate pit a hungry and pugilistic Leah Vukmir against Tammy Baldwin, the incumbent senator who is the queen of cool.

Once the water bottles had been arranged, cheeks blushed, and directions given on which cameras to look into and when, Friday night’s U.S. Senate debate, somewhat upstaged by the gubernatorial debate happening the same night and an important Brewers game, got underway under the guidance of WISN and TV newsman Mike Gousha at 7:02 p.m.

Some key points:

Medal of Honor recipient, Wisconsinite and Harley rider Gary Wetzel showed up to back incumbent Tammy Baldwin

Wetzel sat down in a reserved front row seat in a black cowboy hat and vest and removed neither during the debate. He’s part of a coalition defending Baldwin’s handling of the drug-prescribing crisis at the Tomah V.A. Various state politicians, particularly Gov. Scott Walker, have tried to pull Wetzel into their stable, but with varying results.

Gousha called the time immediately before going live, “The longest six or seven minutes of sitting here you could ever imagine.”

Much happened during this period, although there was little interaction between Baldwin and challenger State Sen. Leah Vukmir, who had begun to wall themselves off, getting in their own lanes, whatever analogy you want to use. Baldwin wore an emerald green dress that lit up under the TV lights, and Vukmir chose a business-like suit. As the seconds crept by, producers brought precious distractions, and Gousha pitched in, as well: “Again, thanks for doing this.”

President Trump kept popping in and out of the debate like a whack-a-mole.

Gousha brought him up in the first question. Was he on the ballot in a de facto sense? “President Trump has been very successful,” Vukmir said, and pointed to “regulatory reform and tax relief and how the economy is booming with GDP growth nobody predicted.”

Both Vukmir and Walker, while critical of Trump during Walker’s run for president, have rejoined his team. While the president’s overall approval ratings are low, he remains relatively solid with Republican loyalists, and candidates like Vukmir and Walker don’t want to discourage or turn them off.

Baldwin briefly described collaborating (at a distance) with Trump.

Baldwin puts in a lot of miles traveling the state to burnish her economic credentials. One idea to come out of this is to require that the nation’s water infrastructure be made out of American iron and steel. That same idea was included in a bill Trump will be signing soon.

During complex sparring over health care, Vukmir said Baldwin wanted to “literally throw grandma off a cliff.”

In 2012, a liberal group ran an attack ad against Paul Ryan, a bit of theater where the congressman, played by an actor, shoves a wheelchair-bound granny off a cliff. In past years, Ryan has certainly pushed ideas of Social Security and Medicare slimming into the mainstream.

That’s some context, but there’s more: Baldwin was raised by her grandparents, and often points to those experiences as giving her insight into the aforementioned programs.

Vukmir triumphed in a brief battle of one-liners.

Around the time a conversation about student loans veered into one about Planned Parenthood, Baldwin coughed and had to take a drink of water, quipping that it was caused by her “preexisting condition.”

“Do you need a nurse?” said Vukmir (who is a nurse), cracking up most of the small auditorium at the Marquette University Law School. This moment, coming midway through the hour-long debate, was followed by more confrontational tactics.

Baldwin sighed very loudly.

Baldwin’s political style is to appear calm and rational and trustworthy, which can win over people like Wetzel and others not sure about supporting a “Madison liberal.” Alongside this is a level of restraint that is sometimes useful and sometimes not, depending on the goals of the moment. Early on, Baldwin and Vukmir traded blows pretty evenly, but as the debate wore on and Vukmir kept swinging, Baldwin seemed to pull back.

Then she sighed. It came during a discussion of when to pull out of Afghanistan, with Baldwin arguing now, and Vukmir saying not so fast.

“I have a son in the military,” the latter said. “Maybe because you don’t have a child, you don’t look at it the way I do.”

An amplified sigh. Vukmir had more or less taken a shot at her identity as the first openly gay senator. “I have great respect for those who serve our nation,” Baldwin said. “I have respect for the need to have a clear mission and stick to that.”

In closing statements, each tried to depict the other as in the thrall of one kind of elites or another.

The next stage for the campaigns will include a visit by Trump to Mosinee on Wednesday night to benefit Vukmir and Walker, and former President Obama will hit the state on Oct. 26 to support Baldwin and gubernatorial challenger Tony Evers.



Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.