SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker spent months and millions of dollars on ads in the divisive recall election telling Wisconsin voters that the state is on the economic upswing — a strong dose of good news that even Mitt Romney backers acknowledge helps the incumbent, President Barack Obama.
Nearly $59 million of pro-Walker advertising leading up to June's recall vote hardened the right-track perception in this Midwest state, where the unemployment rate ticked down last month to 7.3 percent, well below the national average of 7.8.
Two weeks before Election Day, Romney faces the task of convincing voters that things aren't really looking up in Wisconsin as Walker has argued — or even though they are, four years of Obama's policies had nothing to do with it.
It's a challenge in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in the nation's midsection, where resurgent state economies and the federal government's 2009 bailout of Chrysler and General Motors are lifting Obama and some of his Democratic allies running for Senate after the Republican romp of 2010 claimed governorships, state legislatures and congressional seats.
In Indiana, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly has turned a taken-for-granted Republican Senate seat competitive in part because of the auto rescue package that is critical in Kokomo. His rival, Republican state treasurer Richard Mourdock, sued to block the bailout.
The outcome of these tight races will determine majority control of the Senate, currently a 53-47 Democratic advantage. Republicans need a net of four seats to take over if Obama is re-elected, three if Romney wins the presidency.
Polls show Obama with a slight lead in Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, whose fate is largely tied to Obama, locked in a close race with former four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
"People think Wisconsin is headed in the right direction," said Kurt Bauer, the president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's chamber of commerce. "Unemployment is below the national average. We compare us with Illinois an awful lot and people feel generally good."
Unemployment in Illinois is at 8.8 percent and the state is struggling with a budget deficit and a downgrading from investors.
The Wisconsin organization spent heavily on behalf of Walker in the recall. The Republican governor, who won by seven percentage points, focused in his ads on the 30,000 jobs gained and elimination of the state deficit. "Let's keep moving Wisconsin forward," Walker told voters.
Bauer said it's ironic that it would help Obama, but general optimism tends to favor the incumbent. Crucial for Romney is for voters to make a distinction between Washington and Wisconsin, he said.
In Ohio, where unemployment dropped to 7 percent last month, Republican Gov. John Kasich has boasted about a resurgent state and job growth from the auto industry. That undercuts Romney's jobs-and-economy appeal and runs counter to Romney's opposition to the taxpayer-funded rescue package for the auto industry.
Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has embraced the bailout in a state where the auto industry is responsible for one in eight jobs. In a campaign ad, Brown sat behind the wheel of a Chevy Cruze, ticking off all the parts built in Ohio. Republican challenger Josh Mandel spent months unwilling to take a stand on the bailout, until last week when he announced his opposition.
In neighboring Indiana, the federal bailout of Chrysler and General Motors meant more than sparing thousands of jobs that might have disappeared if the auto mainstays had gone bankrupt. Chrysler is now investing more than $1 billion to build fuel-efficient, eight-speed automatic transmissions in Kokomo, one of the largest infusions of cash since the auto company's rebirth.
"We think about where we were two years ago," said Rex Gingerich, who owns Chrysler and GM dealerships. "It was not a very bright future. It really has been a miracle."
Gingerich, a registered Republican, says he hasn't decided who he'll vote for in the Senate race — three-term Rep. Donnelly, the local congressman and a strong proponent of the bailout, or Mourdock. As state treasurer, Mourdock more than opposed the Chrysler bailout, he sued to block it, arguing that it would undermine pensions for teachers and state police officers.
"He single-handedly tried to destroy the auto industry," Donnelly said in an interview. Donnelly cited his own work with the man Mourdock upended in the bitter Republican primary, six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, to save the auto sector.
Mourdock defends his actions in an ad in which he calls the bailout "unconstitutional and illegal" and boasts about taking on the federal government. Helping Chrysler, he says, "looted" the pensions of retired police officers and teachers.
For all the political potential of these Democrats, the reality is that four years after Obama's decisive win, opposition to the president and his party is fierce and relentless in large sections of the Midwest — in coal country in southeast Ohio, in rural parts of northeast Wisconsin.
Just off Interstate 43, close to Sheboygan, an anti-Obama billboard delivers a simple message: "We the people built this country, don't let Obama destroy it."
The Senate race in the state pits Tommy vs. Tammy — the former governor who left office in 2001 to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services in President George W. Bush's administration and the seven-term liberal congresswoman who is popular in the state capital of Madison and surrounding counties of her southern district.
In 2010, a watershed year for Republicans with Walker's triumph and Ron Johnson's ousting of Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, Baldwin collected 191,164 votes, the second most of any House Democratic candidate nationwide. Washington state Rep. Jim McDermott was first.
Thompson is considered an institution in Wisconsin, but a rough, costly four-way Republican primary forced him to spend weeks regrouping and raising money late this summer while Baldwin and outside Democratic groups pummeled him in television ads that made him look older than his 70 years.
"Tommy Thompson should be the decided favorite," said Bob Ziegelbauer, a Democrat-turned-independent and Manitowoc County executive. "He's been slow to awaken the old Tommy. There's been a little rust on the campaign machine. When he does wake up, he should be fine."
In the final weeks to the election, Thompson has been appealing to voters by insisting he is the one politician in the state who needs no introduction.
"You all know me as Tommy," Thompson recently told some two dozen workers at Grover Corp., a Milwaukee company that manufactures piston rings for compressors and other non-automatic equipment. "Ninety percent of the people in Wisconsin know me just as Tommy. They know what I did as governor."
He focuses on the pragmatic accomplishments of his roughly 14 years in office but makes a point of bemoaning government spending, a critical concern of tea partyers and an issue that contemporary Republicans can't afford to ignore.
Thompson jokes that the numerous highways built when he was governor have reduced Wisconsin seasons to two — winter and highway construction. At a candidate debate, he argues for his 15 percent flat tax plan, explaining that it's so simple the average Wisconsin taxpayer could calculate it during halftime of a Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears game.
Yet the soft-spoken Baldwin is running even, casting herself as more attuned to the needs of the middle class than Thompson, who ran for president in 2008 and has been a partner with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Akin Gump.
"It all gets down to whose side are you on, the people or the powerful," the 50-year-old Baldwin said at a debate in Wausau. If elected to the seat now held by retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, Baldwin would be the first openly gay member of the Senate.
In Sheboygan, a county Obama narrowly lost in 2008 and Walker handily won in 2010, a number of voters are still uncertain.
"I always liked Tommy and what he did," said Kevin Swanson, one of the owners of Esell, an online auction service.
Swanson remain undecided however, determined to follow-up on the claims he saw in one campaign ad about Baldwin and her record on Israel. Fresh in his mind is his wife's experience as a county employee and Walker's push to end collective bargaining rights for most public workers, an issue now for the courts.
Maddison McKinch, an 18-year-old student at Lakeland College, said both candidates have strengths and weaknesses but she hasn't decided. She is certain that she's voting for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"I'm Republican but not straight party line," she said.